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Battles between tribal and government forces continue in Yemen

Antiaircraft fire and mortar shelling sound across part of Yemen's capital as a second day of fighting pits President Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces against opponents, including the head of his tribe.

May 24, 2011|By Iona Craig, Los Angeles Times
  • An injured Yemeni loyal to tribal leader Sadiq Ahmar, an opponent of beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh, is transported into a hospital in Sana, the capital.
An injured Yemeni loyal to tribal leader Sadiq Ahmar, an opponent of beleaguered… (Mohammed Huwais, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Sana, Yemen — Heavy shelling and gunfire rocked the northern district of Yemen's capital for a second day, as tribal forces clashed with government troops, leaving at least 34 men dead.

The sounds of antiaircraft fire and mortar shelling reverberated across the district of Hasaba in Sana as fighting pitted President Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces against opponents, including supporters of Sadiq Ahmar, head of the powerful Hashid tribe and Saleh's onetime ally.

After a nighttime lull, fighting started again early Tuesday close to Ahmar's fortified residence, despite reports of attempts at a tribal mediation to end the street battle.

By early afternoon, Republican Guard troops — under the command of Saleh's son, Ahmed — were seen heading to Hasaba in armored vehicles and tanks. Local residents, advised to leave the area, fled in cars and buses as the battle continued over control of the Interior Ministry building.

"We recovered two dead bodies this morning and dozens more wounded," said one ambulance driver as he drove back into the streets amid continuous AK-47 fire.

Late Tuesday, a government official said 14 security force members were killed, and a doctor said he had counted the bodies of at least 20 tribesmen who had supported Ahmar.

Hasaba residents, several openly carrying arms, said Ahmar's fighters had taken control of the Interior Ministry building by midafternoon.

Hundreds of tribesmen, loyal to the powerful Ahmar family, headed into Hasaba in pickups and SUVs as the fighting continued. Unconfirmed reports by local press suggested that several prominent sheiks taking part in mediation attempts had been injured by mortar fire.

The most recent fighting, which began Monday morning, has been confined to the residential and industrial area in the north of the capital. The Trade Ministry was taken over Monday by Ahmar's supporters, and the Yemenia national airline headquarters and the Interior Ministry were set on fire.

"The longer it goes on, the greater the potential for expansion and dragging much more of the country into open conflict," said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University. "This is an incredibly dangerous escalation."

The violence marks a new chapter in the long-running unrest that has spread across the Arabian Peninsula state since mid-January, as protesters call for an end to Saleh's nearly 33-year rule. The divisions extended to Saleh's Hashid tribe, where even Ahmar felt forced to break with the president after his crackdowns against pro-democracy demonstrators. In mid-March, 52 antigovernment protesters were killed by pro-government snipers.

The potential for civil war surfaced after the 1st Armored Division, Yemen's largest regular army division, defected to join the antigovernment movement. The clashes of the last two days have renewed fears that the fragile state could spiral into worse violence.

A proposed transfer-of-power agreement brokered by Persian Gulf officials aimed at finding a peaceful political solution to the crisis all but collapsed Sunday as the president for the third time side-stepped signing the initiative granting him immunity, despite heavy pressure from U.S. and European Union diplomats for him to do so. Saleh's refusal to sign has been widely denounced by the international community.

"President Saleh has an agreement in front of him. He needs to sign it and put Yemen on a positive path so that they can resolve the current situation," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.

Toner said the United States was considering what to do if the problem in Yemen remained unresolved, steps that could include reducing American financial assistance to the country.

"There's a number of options in front of us as the situation continues to fester, and we're looking at all options," he said.

Craig is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Ned Parker in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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