SANAA, 23 March 2011 (IRIN) - The anti-government uprising, backed by opposition parties, has sparked clashes between pro- and anti-government tribesmen in the northern Yemeni governorate of Al-Jawf where at least 40 people have been killed in the past few days, said Sheikh Abdulhamid Amer, chairman of local NGO Social Development and Peace Association.
"The clashes broke out five days ago when government-paid thugs opened fire on peaceful protesters supporting the `Youth Revolution’ in front of the governorate administrative buildings in Al-Jawf city,” he told IRIN.
The governorate administrative buildings and the locally-based 115th Infantry Division are both controlled by anti-government tribesmen. Amer expected further casualties in the ongoing clashes with pro-government forces.
Anti-government tribesmen took over control of the 115th Infantry Division after its commander, Brig Abdurabu Hussein, refused to hand over to Brig Ali Haidara al-Henshi, appointed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to replace Hussein, local independent news website barakish.net reported on 22 March.
According to the website, Hussein, who declared his support for the “Youth Revolution”, handed over control of the division and its equipment to the tribesmen.
The website said Hussein was dismissed by Saleh a day after Houthi gunmen on 20 March seized two tanks, eight vehicles and four artillery pieces from a contingent of the 115th Infantry Division deployed in the governorate’s Al-Safraa area. Houthi rebels have waged an on-off war with the government since 2004, demanding greater autonomy for the northern region of Sa'dah.
The tribes in the Al-Jawf area are part of the Bakil confederation, many of whose senior sheikhs are now opposed to Saleh.
"Strategic military positions in the governorate are now controlled by anti-government tribesmen and Houthi gunmen," NGO chairman Amer told IRIN. "About 20 troops and Houthi gunmen were killed in the latter's attack on the contingent."
During a meeting with members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on 22 March, Saleh urged military commanders who had defected to return to what he called "constitutional legitimacy".
"The era of coups has ended. He who wants to come to power must get there through the ballot box. All of us know that the Yemeni people possess arms. Those who defected from the government's armed forces want to drag the country into a civil war," Saleh warned.
"Military defections will have a negative impact on the homeland. The homeland will divide into several parts. Those dissidents must have thought well before taking such emotional decisions," he said.
Fears of more widespread fighting have grown following the defection of Gen Ali Mohsen Saleh, commander of the Northwestern Military Zone (NWMZ), and Gen Mohamed Ali Mohsen, commander of the Eastern Military Zone (EMZ), plus several other division commanders in northern and eastern governorates.
They announced their support for the ongoing "Youth Revolution" after the 18 March attack on protesters in front of Sanaa University, which left some 52 people dead and more than 250 injured.
Accusations have been traded between Saleh and his opponents in the army following clashes between EMZ troops, supporting the uprising, and Republican Guard forces in Hadhramaut. Three soldiers and an officer were killed in these clashes, eyewitnesses told IRIN from Hadhramaut on 22 March. They said EMZ tanks are now deployed on the streets of Mukalla, capital of Hadhramaut Governorate.
The Republican Guard, which has divisions in most Yemeni governorates, is led by Brig Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh, one of Saleh’s sons.
On the same day, Aljazeera TV reported that Republican Guard forces were besieging the Aerial Defence Division in the western governorate of Hodeidah, after its commander declared his support for the “Youth Revolution”.
The opposition has rejected Saleh’s offer of a peaceful transfer of power after parliamentary elections in early 2012, and demanded his ouster.
"Saleh must quit as soon as possible," said Mohammed Qahtan, spokesperson for Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an opposition coalition of six major parties. "The era of civil wars has ended. It is Saleh himself who is provoking civil war rumours."
Qahtan said next Friday would be the "Friday of Advancing", with protesters advancing towards the presidential palace.
JMP Chairman Yasin Saeed Numan said Saleh's offers should have been made before the Yemeni people took to the streets, "not now".
"Now, we are led by people in the street. We don't have the capacity to persuade protesters to accept such offers."
Even before the current political troubles, Yemen was ranked 140 out of 182 countries on the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index. The country is grappling with poverty, water scarcity, internal conflicts, terrorism, and decreasing oil production. Humanitarian access to beneficiaries is limited due to banditry, the presence of armed groups, and Al-Qaeda influence in some areas. It is the poorest country in the Middle East.