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Yemen sinks into war, chaos

Antigovernment protesters chant slogans Wednesday during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana, Yemen.

Associated Press

Antigovernment protesters chant slogans Wednesday during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana, Yemen.

New York Times

SANA, Yemen — Yemen edged closer to civil war Wednesday, as fighting spread to new parts of the country and government troops waged increasingly bloody street battles with opposition tribesmen for control of crucial areas in the capital.

The violence has transformed a largely peaceful uprising into a tribal conflict with no clear end in sight. The United States and Yemen's Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia, which have tried and failed to mediate a peaceful solution to the crisis, are reduced to sitting on the sidelines and pleading for restraint.

The more peaceful protests gave way to fighting last week between President Ali Abdullah Saleh's security forces and fighters loyal to the head of Yemen's most powerful tribal coalition, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar.

The bloodshed also threatens to unleash a humanitarian catastrophe as Yemen, already the poorest country in the Arab world, runs desperately low on gasoline, cooking oil and other basic supplies. It also raises fears that Islamic militants who use Yemen as a base will have even freer rein to operate.

Yemen is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been linked to attempted attacks on U.S. soil, including the failed Christmas Day attack in 2009.

The rising chaos has become a major concern for the White House, which announced Wednesday that John O. Brennan, President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, would be traveling to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week to discuss "the deteriorating situation in Yemen."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saleh's refusal to step down was prolonging the crisis.

"We cannot expect this conflict to end unless President Saleh and his government move out of the way to permit the opposition and civil society to begin a transition to political and economic reform," she told reporters in Washington.

On Wednesday afternoon, tanks and armored vehicles could be seen rolling into Sana, the capital, from the south. The streets of Sana were largely empty as residents fled for the safety of surrounding villages. Exploding artillery shells and sporadic machine-gun fire could be heard across the city.

Some estimates of the death toll in fighting late Tuesday and early Wednesday ranged as high as 41 on both sides. All told, at least 120 people have been killed since the violence began early last week.

In recent days, the government's tenuous hold has slipped further outside the capital as tribal fighters and Islamist militants seized a major coastal town in the south and tribesmen took over critical checkpoints east of Sana.

The southern city of Taiz remained in a state of lockdown, days after government forces and plainclothes gunmen opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters who had been holding a sit-in for months. Dozens of people were killed, according to witnesses and human rights groups, and the episode provoked condemnations from the United States and other countries.

In the capital, government security forces have tried in recent days to disrupt a similar peaceful sit-in by protesters that has lasted for months. But Maj. Gen. Ali Moshin al-Ahmar's troops have protected them. Most of the protesters in Sana and in cities across Yemen have held fast to their belief in nonviolent resistance, but some have begun to call for war against Saleh, especially after the massacre in Taiz.

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

In the northern province of Jawf, a battle broke out Wednesday between opposition tribesmen and the rebels who now control much of northern Yemen, known as Houthis after the family of their leader. At least five tribesmen were killed, said Abdullah al-Jamili, a senior tribal figure in the area.

The latest round of fighting in Sana broke out May 23, a day after Saleh refused for a third time to sign an agreement for him to leave power in exchange for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family, who hold key positions in Yemen's intelligence and security services. The agreement was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation body of Yemen's Arab neighbors, and the United States had lobbied hard for Saleh to sign it, to no avail.

So far, the fighting in the capital has been mostly limited to the Hasaba district, the site of the Ahmar family compound and a cluster of adjacent government buildings.

Ali Moshin al-Ahmar, the major general who defected to the opposition in March but is not related to the other Ahmars, has so far kept his forces on the sidelines, leaving open the question of whether the fighting will spread into a much deadlier and broader conflict.

But as Saleh moved more tanks and heavy weapons into the capital, some Yemenis warned that Saleh could be planning an effort to crush the Ahmars and consolidate control.

That strategy would carry enormous risks in Yemen, where tribal leaders outside the capital have repeatedly threatened to join the battle and avenge dead relatives.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Players in the conflict

. President: Ali Abdullah Saleh has been president since May 22, 1990. He was the former president of North Yemen and assumed office upon the merger of North and South Yemen. Once considered a key U.S. ally against al-Qaida.

. Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar: Yemen's most powerful tribal leader.

About Yemen

. Strategic location: on Bab el Mandeb, the strait linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, one of world's most active shipping lanes.

. Size: slightly larger than twice the size of Wyoming.

. Population: about 24,133,492

Yemen sinks into war, chaos 06/01/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 10:56pm]
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