By NASSER ARRABYEE and J. DAVID GOODMAN
May 31, 2011
SANA, Yemen — The field of battle expanded again in Yemen on Tuesday as a cease-fire between government forces and opposition tribesmen in the capital broke down, renewing fears that the country’s continuing political stalemate could drag it into civil war.
The fighting came a day after the government pounded a major coastal city with airstrikes to dislodge Islamic militants and, to the west, smashed the country’s largest antigovernment demonstration in clashes that killed at least 20 protesters.
Artillery explosions and machine-gun fire echoed across the center of the capital, Sana, late Monday and Tuesday morning as fierce fighting shattered a tenuous truce that lasted less than two days.
Black smoke rose over the Hasaba neighborhood as security forces attacked a compound belonging to the family of Hamid al-Ahmar, the strongest tribal rival of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and tribesmen loyal to the Ahmars retook a government building near the compound that they had vacated as part of the truce deal on Sunday.
Violence broke out in Sana a week ago after Mr. Saleh refused to follow through on his promise to sign an agreement leading to his resignation following months of street protests against his rule. It was the third time since the uprising began in January that Mr. Saleh had agreed to transfer power, and the third time that he had reneged.
Both sides blamed the other for breaking the cease-fire as fighting flared in Hasaba, where many government ministries are located. Witnesses said a local police station was burned to the ground before dawn on Tuesday. The two sides traded artillery fire near the state-run television headquarters.
“Last night’s clashes were the fiercest so far,” Mohammed al-Quraiti, a neighborhood resident, told Reuters. “My children and I couldn’t sleep all night because of the heavy shooting.”
Street battles in the capital reopened a central front for Yemen’s security forces, which have moved forcefully to contain a diverse group of distinct opponents, including tribal fighters, militant Islamists and nonviolent antigovernment protesters.
The latter group found themselves the target of a harsh crackdown in the city of Taiz late Sunday and early Monday as security forces and plainclothes gunmen swept through a main square, dispersing the thousands of protesters seeking the ouster of Mr. Saleh. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had received reports that as many as 50 people were killed in the ensuing clashes, The Associated Press reported. The United States Embassy in Sana condemned the “unprovoked and unjustified attack.”
On Tuesday, protest leaders responded to the crackdown with calls for mass demonstrations. “We are determined to carry our protests to five squares instead of the one that was cleared,” said Riyadh Adeeb, an activist in the city. “We will know how to defend ourselves this time.”
A large number of Republican Guard troops deployed around the city and were using gunfire to scatter those who tried to protest, witnesses in the city said. By the late afternoon, more than 100 women had massed in a central square, challenging security forces nearby to use force against them, a breech of social norms. “This place, Wadi al Qadhi, may become the new sit-in square if women stand firm in their place,” Mr. Adeeb said.
But the opposition women were soon dispersed by female police officers and women supporters of Mr. Saleh, a witness said; there were no reports of injuries.
In the southern coastal city of Zinjibar, five Yemeni soldiers died in fighting on Tuesday, Yemen’s state-run television reported. Hundreds have fled the city where Islamic militants took control over the weekend.
Nasser Arrabyee reported from Sana, and J. David Goodman from New York.