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Yemen forces rout opposition fighters from capital district

Forty people are killed and scores of residents flee Yemen's capital, Sana. Fighting between supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his onetime ally, tribal leader Sadiq Ahmar, has raised the specter of more bloodshed.

May 27, 2011|By Iona Craig, Los Angeles Times
  • A man secures his possessions as he prepares to evacuate his family from Sana, Yemens capital, where heated battles have continued for days.
A man secures his possessions as he prepares to evacuate his family from… (Khaled Abdullah, Reuters )

Reporting from Sana, Yemen — Yemeni government forces pushed fighters opposed to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime from Sana's northern district Thursday, and at least 40 people were killed and scores of residents fled the capital in fear.

Gunfire could be heard in the distance from Sana late Thursday afternoon, after more than three days of heated battles. Charred government buildings and empty AK-47 bullet casings remained from earlier fighting in the battleground neighborhood of Hasaba. The nearby state television center, reclaimed by government troops, stood hollowed out by mortar and antiaircraft rounds.

A few rescue police officers in blue camouflage uniforms kept watch, resting their gun muzzles over sandbags on the rubble-filled streets. The clashes had begun Monday around the fortified residence of Hashid tribal leader Sadiq Ahmar, a onetime supporter who broke with the president in March over Saleh's use of violence against antigovernment demonstrators.

The state prosecutor has issued arrest warrants for Ahmar, his nine brothers and "others who are accused of treason and launching an armed rebellion," government officials said. The Defense Ministry said 28 people were killed in an explosion at a weapons storage facility in western Sana.

Opposition parties disputed the government's claim about the explosion, accusing Saleh's Republican Guard of shelling a residential area and killing civilians. Medics said 12 other people were killed Thursday. As many as 100 people have died this week, according to unofficial tallies.

Many residents fled the city for the safety of their home villages. Others stocked up on food and waited in long bank lines as they prepared for another likely round of bloodshed. Some warned that the fight between Saleh and Ahmar had nothing to do with the pro-democracy protests of the last several months and was fueled more by a power struggle between the two men.

"Everyone knows that Saleh's war with the Al-Ahmars will destroy us all," said fruit seller Mohammed Saeed as he closed his shop so he could escape Sana.

Some analysts and experts said the rift between the two men could doom the political aspirations of pro-democracy activists who first turned out in late January to demand that Saleh resign after nearly 33 years in office.

"Most of the antiregime demonstrators are genuinely looking to upend the system. They are seeking greater accountability, participation, opportunities, etc. They are not interested in exchanging one set of Hashid tribal elites, the president and his family, for another," said April Alley, a Yemen expert with the International Crisis Group think tank.

U.S. officials and other members of the international community have called for Saleh to sign a transfer-of-power agreement brokered by Persian Gulf nations that would allow him to step down from office with immunity, but he has refused to do so.

Antigovernment protesters maintained their 24-hour vigil for Saleh's departure Thursday in the sprawling tented encampment in the west of the city, where activists again prepared for protests after Friday prayers. They vowed to carry on despite the violence.

"This will not change our peaceful revolution," said activist Adel Surabi. "This is an argument between the Al-Ahmars and Saleh, it has nothing to do with us."

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

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