Tens of thousands mark 3 years since rebel takeover of Yemen capital

Sanaa (AFP) –


Tens of thousands of supporters of Yemen's Huthi rebels and their allies gathered in Sanaa on Thursday to mark three years since the rebel takeover of the capital.

The Huthis and forces loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh captured Sanaa on September 21, 2014, plunging Yemen into chaos and prompting a Saudi-led military intervention against them the next year.

On Thursday, warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition flew overhead as the crowds -- Huthi and Saleh supporters -- massed in the capital's Sabaeen Square, an AFP photographer said.

On the ground, security forces were on high alert, searching vehicles rigorously as they entered the capital and approached the square.

A massive stage hosted a string of speeches, punctuated by an all-men's choir, dressed in traditional Yemeni clothes, belting out military anthems.

"From this blessed square we will liberate all of Yemen," the head of the rebel government, Abdel Aziz bin Habtoor, told the crowds.

"We will not compromise on the liberation of our lands," he said.

He accused coalition members Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of "direct occupation" of Yemen's southern and some of its eastern regions.

The Huthi outlet Al-Masirah said supporters had arrived from provinces across the country for the rally.

On September 21, 2014, the Shiite Huthis seized key institutions, including the government headquarters and military sites, with the aid of forces loyal to Saleh.

By January 2015, they forced President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee to Yemen's second city, Aden, which he later declared as "provisional capital".

In March that year, the Saudi-led coalition starts a military intervention aimed at rolling back Huthi gains and restoring Hadi to power.

The ensuing war has killed more than 5,000 civilians and wounded nearly 9,000, according to the United Nations.

More than 17 million Yemenis are now facing dire food shortages, and a cholera epidemic has killed more than 2,000 people since April.

Yemen is today split in two, with the Houthi-Saleh camp controlling the north and coalition-backed pro-government forces fighting the Huthis as well as jihadists in the south.