Anti-government protesters in Sana chant slogans during a demonstration… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Cairo — As Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh struggles to retain power in the face of weeks-long protests, the central government's control over restive provinces in the north and south has weakened substantially in recent days, both officials and insurgent leaders said Tuesday.
For years, Yemen has battled a tribal insurgency in the north and Islamic militants in the south, and both groups have capitalized on the political turmoil of the last two months to make territorial gains.
The most visible indication of the losses came Monday when a large explosion occurred at a munitions factory in Jaar, a city in the southern province of Abyan, killing more than 100 people. The incident followed a takeover of much of the province by militants loyal to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, witnesses said.
The fighters had battled for days against military units throughout the province, which is rife with secessionist groups and tribes hostile to the government.
Large stretches of other provinces fell into insurgent hands more quietly, and Saleh administration officials acknowledge that at least six of the country's 18 provinces are now out of the government's control.
Desperation and anger have long fed the insurgencies in Yemen, the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula. More than half the population is illiterate and more than 40% unemployed.
In the northern province of Saada, leaders of a long-standing Houthi tribal rebellion took control last week after Saleh's military commander in the region, Gen. Ali Mohsen Ahmar, joined the opposition movement.
Faris Manaa, an arms smuggler and head of a prominent local family, declared himself to be governor.
"The people's revolution has taken total control of the situation in Saada," Manaa said. "The army and local leaders have given their blessing to what has happened."
Houthi elements also were reported to have claimed large swaths of territory in the neighboring provinces of Jawf and Mareb, in what some analysts are attributing to the defections of army units stationed in the north.
"This is directly related to the decision of Ali Mohsen to side with the protesters," said Ali Dailami, an analyst with the Yemeni Organization for Human Rights. "The Houthis are immeasurably stronger than any forces loyal to the president in the north."
Saleh confirmed the fall of the six provinces in recent remarks, and he presented himself as the only alternative to chaos as he withdrew an offer to leave office early.
"We want to stand by local authorities to ensure security through the formation of popular committees to defend their areas," Saleh said.
The comments led the opposition coalition to accuse the president of deliberately "ceding the institutions and military posts … to armed groups."
The presidential communique urged the formation of popular security committees against the "chaos planned by the authorities, which aims at staying in place by warping the peaceful nature of this great popular revolution."
"The Houthis have always been fighting Saleh's regime, not the Yemeni nation," noted Sheik Sadeq Ahmar, head of the most powerful tribal confederation in Yemen, who recently resigned his position in the ruling party and sided with the protesters.
"Saleh is responsible for what happened" in the north, he said.
A special correspondent in Sana, Yemen, contributed to this report.