Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Yemen Forces Battle Tribal Rivals for Key Sites in Capital

Source : New York Times, o1/06/2011


SANA, Yemen — Yemen tipped closer to all out civil war on Wednesday as government troops and opposition tribesmen battled to control key positions in the capital and foreign diplomats boarded planes to flee.

The violence this week in the capital, Sana, and in several cities around the country — including the use of heavy artillery and, in the south, aerial bombing runs by government warplanes — reached levels comparable to times in Yemen’s history when it has been torn apart by internal conflict.

With no immediate renewal of mediation efforts, Yemen’s security forces have moved with force to contain multiple groups of opponents — including not only tribal fighters, but also militant Islamists and nonviolent antigovernment protesters — that have distinct and sometimes conflicting agendas.

Around the heavily fortified headquarters of Yemen’s state-run television in Sana, government forces fired shells at tribal fighters loyal to the family of Hamid al-Ahmar, the strongest tribal rival of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who clings to power in the face of months of protests and days of mounting chaos.

Fierce battles between Ahmar tribesmen and government forces began early last week after Mr. Saleh refused for a third time to follow through on a promise to sign an agreement — the result of weeks of mediation efforts by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council — that would lead to his resignation.

On Wednesday, Kuwait, a Gulf council member, recalled its diplomats from the country’s embassy in Sana because of the “deteriorated security situation in Yemen,” Kuwait’s state-run KUNA news agency reported.

A day earlier, Italy said it had temporarily shut its embassy and withdrawn its staff.

The United States Embassy remains open, but last week advised all American civilians to leave the country.

Violence flared again overnight in the Hasaba neighborhood of Sana, the scene of the most intense fighting between Ahmar forces and government troops, who renewed their pitched clashes after a brief cease-fire broke down late Monday.

Tribesmen controlled large portions of the neighborhood on Wednesday, including many of the ministries and other government buildings there, though the government disputed claims that the Interior Ministry had been overrun.

Heavy casualties were reported in the capital, with estimates ranging as high as 41 from both government forces and Ahmar tribesmen. A spokesman for the Ahmar family put the tribal casualties at 10 dead and 31 wounded.

The government was “randomly” shelling the Hasaba area “from military camps at the mountains around the capital,” the spokesman, Abdul Qawi al-Qaisi, said.

The violence has driven many protesters to leave the continuous demonstration in the capital, which is protected by Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, the country’s most powerful military leader, who defected to the opposition in March.

While thousands are still camping out in nonviolent opposition to Mr. Saleh, others have decided to join the fight.

“For me and many others like me here in the square, we are convinced that peaceful means would not work since they did not work over the last four months,” said Ahmed Obadi, a young protester and teacher.

Late on Tuesday a missile struck the headquarters of General Ahmar, who has so far remained on the sidelines during the recent violence (he is not in the immediate family of Hamid al-Ahmar).

The Defense Ministry denied firing the missile, and the general issued a statement confirming an attack by “land-to-land” missile without speculating on who might have fired it.

The missile attack came as state-run media reported that some of the general’s troops stormed the general prosecutor’s office, three miles west of Hasaba, looting documents.

State media said that the troops had been joined by militants from Al Eman University, which has ties to Islamic radicals.

South of the capital, the city of Taiz remained in a state of lockdown Wednesday with security forces and Republican Guards moving swiftly to disperse even the smallest gatherings in the streets, residents said.

The city had been the site of Yemen’s largest antigovernment sit-in until a deadly crackdown early this week by government forces and plainclothes gunmen cleared protesters from the square they had occupied since February.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had received reports that as many as 50 people died.

Traffic returned to the square on Wednesday. The owner of nearby gas station said it was the first time in months he was able to sell gas.

In the southern coastal city of Zinjibar, bodies lay in the streets, witness said, as Yemeni troops fought with Islamic militants who took control over the weekend.

Nasser Arrabyee reported from Sana, and J. David Goodman from New York. Khaled Hammadi

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