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Yemen president wounded as tribesmen strike palace

Yemeni antiregime protesters climb on a huge billboard Friday, calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

AHMAD GHARABLI | AFP/Getty Images

Yemeni antiregime protesters climb on a huge billboard Friday, calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

SANA, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded when rebellious tribesmen struck his palace with rockets Friday, targeting him for the first time in an escalation of fighting that has turned parts of the capital into a battleground and pushed Yemen toward civil war.

One of the rockets smashed into a mosque on the palace grounds where the president was praying along with his top leadership. Among the nine wounded were the prime minister, the top security adviser and the two heads of parliament, as well as the cleric leading prayers. Seven guards were killed.

Officials said Saleh had only slight injuries — Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi spoke only of "scratches to his face." But there were indications the injuries may have been more severe. Saleh, in his 60s, was taken to a Defense Ministry hospital, while officials promised repeatedly that he would soon appear in public. But by late Friday, state TV had aired only an audio message from him.

"If you are well, I am well," Saleh said in the brief message, addressing Yemenis. He spoke in a labored voice, his breathing at times heavy. He blamed the rocket attack on "this armed gang of outlaws," referring to the tribal fighters.

The assault directly on the president is likely to heighten what has been an increasingly brutal fight between Saleh's forces and the tribesmen loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar. Since violence erupted May 23, Sana residents have been hiding in basements as the two sides fight over control of government ministries and duke it out with artillery and in gunbattles, sending clouds of smoke over the city.

The bloodshed comes as nearly four months of protests and international diplomacy have failed to oust Yemen's leader of 33 years.

After the rocket attack, government forces intensified shelling on Sana's Hassaba district, the epicenter of the fighting and the location of Ahmar's residential compound.

In Washington, the White House called on all sides to stop the fighting, which has killed more than 160 people. Washington fears that the chaos will undermine Yemen's U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida's branch in the country, which has attempted a number of attacks against the United States. Saleh has been a crucial U.S. ally in the antiterror fight, but Washington is now trying to negotiate a stable exit for him.

Yemen president wounded as tribesmen strike palace 06/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 12:26am]

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