Friday, 27 May 2011

Relative calm in Sanaa and clashes outside

Source:New York Times,27/05/2011


SANA, Yemen — More than 100 tribal fighters overran a military checkpoint to the northeast of the Yemeni capital Friday, killing several soldiers and taking control of an important eastern gateway to the city, according to tribesmen and witnesses. Five tribesmen were also killed, they said.

The battle continued into Friday afternoon, the tribesmen said, with the Yemen military carrying out airstrikes by helicopter on areas around the checkpoint, known as Al Fardha, in an effort to dislodge the opposition tribesmen. Located on a mountain, Al Fardha is the main checkpoint between Sana and the eastern province of Mareb, and an important strategic location for the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which has tried to seal off the capital to prevent tribal fighters from joining battles there.

But even as fighting raged outside Sana, the violence that has gripped Yemen’s central city since Monday appeared to ebb. Mr. Saleh canceled his weekly rally, which had in the past included thousands of government supporters from outside of the capital, and opposition protests were not as large as in previous weeks amid continuing fears of violence.

The relative calm came as representatives of Mr. Saleh’s government engaged in mediation late Thursday and again on Friday with tribesmen loyal to the Ahmar family, whose members play leading roles in the political opposition. The two sides fought fierce street battles this week after Mr. Saleh refused for a third time to sign a deal to transfer power in the face of vast street protests. More than 100 people have died in the clashes. Tribesmen, speaking to the local news media, have vowed to avenge the deaths of men from their tribes who had been killed in the fighting.

Previous efforts at mediation between government forces and Ahmar fighters broke down this week after a group of tribal sheiks came under fire almost immediately after arriving at the Ahmar compound. Tribal mediators were again at the Ahmar home on Friday, and talks appeared to be proceeding without any violent interruption.

Sadiq al-Ahmar, the oldest of the Ahmar brothers and the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, spoke at an opposition protest on Friday and confirmed the mediation efforts. He also defended the actions of his fighters. “We wanted our revolution to be peaceful but were forced to use the weapons,” said Mr. Ahmar, who had sought to rally Yemen’s tribes against Mr. Saleh. “Now we would say we are ready for anything peaceful or not peaceful.”

Protesters at the main antigovernment sit-in remained divided over how to react to the violence. Some were angered by Mr. Ahmar’s comments. “He introduced himself as a leader for our peaceful revolution,” a protester at Friday’s rally, Tawfik al-Ammari, said doubtfully. “We want Saleh to go, but we do not want the Al Ahmar family to replace him.”

As the country moved toward a broader civil conflict, Mr. Ahmar’s efforts to widen the struggle appeared to be working, with Friday’s fighting at the northeastern checkpoint and battles on Wednesday in Arhab, a village north of the capital.

Western leaders condemned the “use of violence in response to peaceful protest throughout Yemen” in a joint communiqué issued Friday during the Group of 8 meeting in France, Reuters reported.

Mr. Saleh has 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 press him to put an end to the violence by signing the agreement and leaving power.

Amid the fighting this week, residents in the capital hoarded cash from banks and thousands packed into cars and taxis to flee. Though Yemen has had its share of conflicts over the past 20 years, including a bloody civil war in 1994 and a drawn-out war against Houthi rebels in the north, most battles were fought outside Sana.

Nasser Arrabyee reported from Sana, and J. David Goodman from New York. Laura Kasinof contributed reporting.

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