From Mohammed Jamjoom and Hakim Almasmari, CNN
May 29, 2011
(CNN) -- Yemeni security forces abandoned a key coastal city to Islamic militants, residents of the city told CNN Sunday, while a powerful rebel tribe kept up pressure on the government in the capital.
"The militants are everywhere and we cannot leave our homes," said a resident of the city of Zinjibar, east of Aden.
"They suddenly arrived and in large numbers. There were no clashes when they arrived on Friday night. We tried to complain to security forces but could not find them," said the resident, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
By Saturday, "hundreds" of masked militants controlled the main streets of the city, locals said.
Abyan province, where Zinjibar is located, is a hotbed of Islamic militancy in Yemen, a country which has become a key battleground against al Qaeda.
Witnesses in the city described the forces in control of Zinjibar as "Islamic militants" but did not specify that they were al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, in the capital Sanaa, both the government and the al-Hashid tribe say they have not reached a cease-fire agreement after days of street battles.
But a spokesman for the tribe says it is handing back key government buildings it has been occupying.
"Hashid tribes have given the government a number of buildings back after (President Ali Abdullah) Saleh promised not to use them to launch attacks on the tribes," Abdulqawi al-Qaisi said.
"However, this does not mean that a cease-fire has been signed," he said, saying it meant the tribe was "cooperating for a cease-fire to succeed."
Abdu Ganadi, a government spokesman, said earlier it would be "impossible" to reach a truce with the before they "hand over governmental property."
The government did not immediately confirm that the tribesmen left the government buildings, and neither side said which facilities were involved.
The powerful al-Hashid tribe rose up against long-time Saleh in the last week, after he backed out of a regionally brokered deal meant to ease him out of office and end months of demonstrations of the kind that have swept the Arab world this year.
Saleh has been resisting protests calling on him to step down after 33 years in power.
Mediators between the government and the tribe had set a deadline of 6 p.m. (11 a.m. ET) Saturday for a cease-fire between security forces and tribal factions.
But sporadic gunfire erupted in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa just moments after the deadline expired without a peace agreement, according to witnesses and a senior tribal leader involved in mediation efforts who was not authorized to speak to the media.
Witnesses described "light clashes" between the two sides, roughly 30 minutes after the deadline had expired Saturday night.
The city was calmer Sunday morning, witnesses said, but both sides insisted no deal had been reached.
Some residents had heeded calls to evacuate parts of their capital city Saturday in expectation of further clashes between the two groups, but most remained firmly entrenched in their homes, according to witnesses.
Elsewhere, three French humanitarian workers were kidnapped Saturday in the southern city of Say'oon, according to a senior Interior Ministry official in that city.
In a tense standoff, both the government and the head of the al-Hashed tribe, Sadeq al-Ahmar, had protection around their homes and headquarters on Saturday.
Security forces could be seen positioned outside government buildings, Sanaa International Airport, houses of ruling party officials and along main streets of the capital, witnesses said.
Nearly every main street in Sanaa has a checkpoint manned by security forces, they added.
Snipers were also perched on rooftops, particularly near the Presidential Palace, Republican Palace and the Central Security Forces headquarters located inside the capital.
The moves came one day after Yemen air force combat jets bombed tribal forces opposed to the embattled Yemeni president, according to a senior defense official.
At least seven air force bombers were deployed east of Sanaa to the district of Nehm, where two military compounds had been overtaken earlier by tribal fighters, said the official, who was not identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Ahmed Soufi, a senior advisor to Saleh, said 18 people were killed in the fighting.
The recent fighting has raised fears of a full-blown civil war in Yemen, an impoverished, arid and mountainous nation that has been a key U.S. ally in the battle against the al Qaeda terrorist network.