ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Forces loyal to South Yemen's Marxist leader fought tank and naval battles Tuesday in the port capital of Aden against rebellious troops supporting a more radical Marxist faction closely tied to the Soviet Union.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in the fighting, which was centered in Aden, but sources confirmed reports that the country's strongman, Ali Nasser Hasani, was wounded during an argument with his first deputy prime minister, who was shot and killed by palace guards. Gulf-based shipping executives said Hasani was hospitalized.
Reports reaching London from Aden told of unidentified planes bombing Aden airport and of artillery and small-arms fire in central Aden and in the city's harbor. The British Broadcasting Corp. said a number of ships in the harbor were on fire Monday night.
The state-run Kuwait News Agency quoted Arab diplomatic sources as saying that government forces were mopping up the few remaining pockets of rebels and had virtually crushed the coup attempt.
Telex and telephone lines were cut, and the official Radio Aden, which said Monday that the attempted coup had been foiled, was silent.
South Yemen, an impoverished nation of 2 million people, lies on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. It is considered strategic because it controls the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
The only Marxist-ruled country in the Arab world, South Yemen is a key Soviet ally in the Mideast. The Soviet Union has important naval bases in Aden and on South Yemen's Socotra Island in the Indian Ocean.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, South Yemen's 27,500-strong armed force is heavily equipped by the Soviet Union and is backed by 1,000 Soviet troops.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman noted Tuesday that the United States has no diplomatic representation in South Yemen and said there are "few, if any, Americans" there.
In Abu Dhabi, foreign and South Yemeni officials told journalists trying to travel to South Yemen that both the airport in Aden and the country's borders with neighboring states, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman, were closed.
In Rome, the state-run media said the Italian Embassy in Aden was set on fire, but no casualties were reported among the 37 Italians there. There were no immediate reports of other foreigners trapped in the fighting.
In London, a British Foreign Office spokesman said Britons in South Yemen have been advised to remain indoors. "The fighting is still continuing, and the situation is extremely confused," he said, adding that the British Embassy was slightly damaged by gunfire.
South Yemeni and foreign officials said the battles began Monday after an attempt to assassinate Hasani, chairman of the nation's Presidium and head of state.
Radio Aden reported that at least three top South Yemeni government officials, including former head of state Abdul Fattah Ismail, were summarily executed Monday for plotting to overthrow Hasani. Several "accomplices" were also reported arrested and held for trial after the plot was discovered Monday morning.
South Yemeni sources confirmed that Hasani, 49, was "slightly wounded" when his deputy prime minister, Ali Ahmed Nasser Antar, shot him during an argument.
"Antar was immediately shot dead by the (palace) guards," a Persian Gulf-based source said. Antar had sided with Ismail, sources said.
However, diplomatic sources in London expressed doubts about the reported executions.
Hasani has recently expanded efforts to attract foreign development aid to include pro-Western Persian Gulf states.
Closer Ties to Soviets
The South Yemeni sources, who asked not to be identified, said the alleged plotters were in favor of closer ties with the Soviet Union.
"It was a matter of ideological differences," said one source. "They (the plotters) were against (Hasani) having better relations with countries like Saudi Arabia and other (pro-Western) gulf states."
The uncertain situation prompted South Yemeni Prime Minister Haider abu Bakr Attas, who was in New Delhi when the attempted coup began, to cancel plans to fly to China. An aide said that Attas is to return to South Yemen today.
In a press release, Attas "strongly warned of the results of any outside attempts to use the current circumstances for any external interference in the internal affairs of his country."
His aide would not say whether the warning was aimed at a particular country.
Sources in Abu Dhabi told a reporter that Attas is a supporter of Ismail and Antar.