Thursday, 26 May 2011

Fighting Worsens in Yemen

Source: New York Times


Fighting between government forces and opposition tribesmen in Yemen spread beyond the capital on Thursday, drawing in new tribal factions and widening the country’s bloody civil conflict, now in its fourth day.

In Sana, the Defense Ministry said at least 28 people had been killed in a large explosion at a weapons storage facility belonging to tribal fighters, but did not provide details on those killed and the tribesmen denied that the cache belonged to them. Reuters said dozens had died Thursday in pitched street battles.

The death toll neared 100 since fighting began Monday after Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, refused for a third time to sign a deal to transfer power in the face of vast street protests.

The battles in the capital have pitted Mr. Saleh’s security forces against his tribal rivals, the Ahmar family, whose members play leading roles in the political opposition.

The two sides are struggling for control of important government buildings, including the Interior Ministry, which are near the Ahmar family compound.

Fear gripped the capital with residents hoarding cash from banks and thousands packing into cars and taxis to flee into nearby villages. While residents were allowed to leave, tribesmen from surrounding villages who descended on Sana from the south, east and north faced government roadblocks, effectively sealing off the capital.

Sadiq al-Ahmar, one of the tribal leaders, said he would not accept any mediation with the government and sought to rally Yemen’s various tribes against Mr. Saleh. “Ali Abdullah Saleh is a liar, liar, liar,” Mr. Ahmar said, according to a witness and a Reuters report. “We are firm. He will leave this country barefoot.”

Mr. Ahmar’s efforts to widen the struggle appeared to be working, as new tribal fighters loyal to Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, an ally of the Ahmar family, battled government forces in the village of Arhab, north of the capital. Six people were killed in clashes as security officers left from two bases and attempted to head to the capital, about 20 miles away, according to witnesses in the town.

The United States includes Mr. Zindani, a spiritual leader, on a list of “specially designated global terrorists” and his entry into the worsening conflict is likely to stoke fears that a power vacuum in Yemen could provide an opportunity for militants.

The village of Arhab was the site of airstrikes against militants in 2009 after American officials, working closely with Yemeni authorities, obtained information about suspected training camps there for Al Qaeda.

Mr. Saleh had been an ally of the United States on counterterrorism, but now American officials are considering pushing for United Nations resolutions or even sanctions in order to pressure Mr. Saleh to put an end to the violence by signing the agreement and leaving power.

That outcome appeared to recede Thursday as the government issued an arrest warrant for Sadiq al-Ahmar and his brothers accusing them of leading an armed rebellion, a move unlikely to quell the fighting.

The State Department has ordered all eligible family members of United States government employees and some nonessential personnel to leave the country, according toa statement on its Web site on Thursday.

For a fourth day, battles flared around government buildings near the Ahmar compound. Mortar fire blasted the headquarters of an opposition television station, Suhail, owned by the Ahmar family, which Mr. Saleh had accused of supporting the antigovernment protests. After the attack, the station was reduced to playing music and still images from the earlier antigovernment demonstrations.

Protesters at the main antigovernment sit-in remained divided over how to react to the violence. Some insisted that the demonstrations, which began in January, remain peaceful. “We will keep our revolution peaceful whatever happens,” said Najeeb Abdul Rehman, a protest leader.

But a larger group, including many from the country’s Islamist party, which has ties to the Ahmar family, called for protesters to join the fight.

“We must take weapons now and go to fight with those who helped us,” said Ameen Hefdhallah, another protest leader.

“Otherwise we will be crushed in the battles of the big guys.” There is also a smaller third group: those protesters who have left the sit-in and given up on the idea of a revolutionary, but peaceful, struggle for justice and freedom.

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