Yemen Battles Opponents on Two Fronts
Source: New York Times,30/05/2011
By NASSER ARRABYEE and J. DAVID GOODMAN
SANA, Yemen — The Yemeni government ratcheted up its violent response to opponents on two fronts Monday, pounding a major coastal city with airstrikes aimed at dislodging Islamic militants, and smashing the country’s largest antigovernment demonstration in overnight clashes that killed more than a dozen protesters, according to witnesses reached by phone.
Residents in the coastal city of Zinjibar said warplanes attacked militant positions with repeated bombing runs beginning early Monday afternoon, a day after Islamist militants took control of the city, seizing banks and a central government compound. The army shelled the compound, which was also the target of many of the airstrikes, according to witnesses in the city.
As bombs fell in the restive south, security forces and plainclothes gunmen swept through a main square in the central city of Taiz, driving out thousands of antigovernment protesters and violently dismantling the country’s largest continuous sit-in.
Gunfire erupted in Al Huriya Square — dubbed “Freedom Square” by those who have camped there since mid-February — as protesters tried to climb onto the security vehicles, witnesses said. Video posted on social networking sites by opposition groups showed plainclothes gunmen firing from doorways and from rooftops as protesters scattered.
The United States Embassy in Sana, the capital, condemned the “unprovoked and unjustified attack on youth protesters” in a statement on Monday, adding that the protesters have “shown both resolve and restraint and have made their viewpoint known through nonviolent means.”
Estimates of the number killed in Taiz ranged from 20 to 70, according to witnesses. Reuters, citing medical workers, said at least 15 were killed.
But those figures were difficult to confirm after a hospital within the protest area was looted early Monday, forcing the wounded to seek assistance further away, said Abdulkafi Shamsan, a doctor there. He said about 15 soldiers held nurses at gunpoint as they smashed computers, stole medical supplies and detained several injured patients. “They even shot their guns inside the hospital,” he said. “I was in the operation room, I went downstairs and I saw everything destroyed.”
After bulldozers and tractors cleared the square in Taiz late Sunday, Mohammed Dabwan, a resident who lives nearby, said no protesters remained on Monday. Witnesses said thousands of protesters had been at the demonstration when security forces descended on the square from three directions in a thick cloud of tear gas late Sunday afternoon. Clashes continued until after midnight with security forces firing water cannons and setting the protesters’ tents ablaze with Molotov cocktails.
Sporadic gunfire echoed through the city on Monday, witnesses said.
It was unclear how many people had died in the Zinjibar fighting, which began on Friday: the city is facing a near total breakdown of services, residents said, with little medical services available, and no electricity or water. Hundreds have fled the city to Aden, the largest southern city, or to neighboring villages. Those who could not afford to leave have taken refuge in local mosques, residents said.
The fall of Zinjibar to a few hundred self-styled holy warriors fed Western fears that a breakdown of authority could allow militants sympathetic to Al Qaeda to make gains in Yemen. The Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has commented on the takeover of Jaar in March, but has so far not claimed responsibility for seizing control in Zinjibar, and it was unclear whether the militants there conclusively have ties to the international terror group.
Some opponents of Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have seen reports of broadening chaos as a ploy by Mr. Saleh to prove to wavering allies that he is necessary for the country’s stability. But there was no evidence on Monday that Mr. Saleh had any role in allowing Zinjibar to fall.
In Taiz, a government security official there said the violence was not an organized crackdown. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the government, said the clash started when “armed groups” from the opposition coalition attacked a nearby security station, setting fire to cars. The protesters then “kidnapped soldiers and took them to their sit-in square,” he said, where they were abused by the protesters. The official said the security forces then “decided on their own to go to the square and liberate their colleagues and clear the square from those making the riots, sabotage and murders.”
Witness in Taiz also said the fighting was touched off by a clash at a security station near the protest, but disputed that any soldiers had been kidnapped.
Reporting on events in Yemen was limited Monday by what appeared to be a block on international calls to phones belonging to Sabafone, a cellular network owned by Hamid al-Ahmar, the most outspoken of the Ahmar brothers and Mr. Saleh’s biggest tribal rival. Many opposition protesters — as well as some government officials — use the phone service.
Protesters at the main antigovernment sit-in voiced concern about the sudden violence in Taiz. “We are scared of course,” said Salah Sharafi, a student protester. “We are preparing ourselves for such an attack.”
The clashes in the south followed a week of battles in Sana that pushed the country to the brink of civil war. That front remained quiet Monday after a tenuous cease-fire deal reached on Sunday between tribal fighters and government forces.
Violence broke out a week ago between government forces and fighters loyal to the Ahmar brothers after Mr. Saleh refused to follow through on his promise to sign an agreement leading to his resignation. It was the third time since the uprising began in January that Mr. Saleh had agreed to transfer power, and the third time he reneged on the promise.
Nasser Arrabyee reported from Sana, and J. David Goodman from New York. Laura Kasinof contributed reporting from Hagerstown, Md.