By HAKIM ALMASMARI in San'a, Yemen, and MARGARET COKER in Abu Dhabi
A fresh armed uprising against Yemen's embattled president has erupted in the country's third-largest city, pitting well-armed Islamic fundamentalist tribal fighters against forces loyal to embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his relatives, expanding the unrest from the capital in the north to the southern reaches of the nation.
The new front against President Saleh in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, kicked off over the weekend when armed Islamists from the mountains outside the city moved in after hundreds of elite government units usually stationed there withdrew from their posts to bolster defenses elsewhere, the Defense Ministry said.
The security situation in Yemen has deteriorated rapidly over the past week, when political negotiations designed to end President Saleh's 33-year rule and allow him a dignified exit from office failed when he refused—for the third time—to sign the agreement hammered out among his aides, the political opposition and the international community. More than 150 people have died in clashes that have raged in San'a, the capital, a province north of the capital and now in the south in Abyan, which is one of the bastions of an al Qaeda cell prevalent in the country.
Zinjibar residents said fighters hail from local tribes which for years have lived outside of the central-government oversight. The group, which calls itself Ansar al-Sharia, or the Supporters of Islamic Law, isn't part of al Qaeda, residents say, but want to set up a fundamentalist Islamic emirate in the south, like the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
On Sunday, there was no sign that political negotiations had any possibility of being rekindled, and it is unclear how or if the international community can respond to the growing bloodshed. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia, both targets of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are concerned that the terrorist organization will take advantage of any civil war to increase its foothold and launch fresh attacks on international targets.
Armed fundamentalist fighters taking control of key cities like Zinjibar heighten that concern. Al Qaeda made a similar arrangement with the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s, making common cause with coreligionists, which allowed Osama bin Laden to attack U.S. targets.
In Abyan on Sunday, residents said heavy clashes flared between the estimated 400 militants patrolling Zinjibar streets and Republican Guard units who have called in helicopter gunships to attack militant positions on the ground in attempts to regain control of the city.
It was impossible to confirm the total damage or deaths, but multiple residents on Sunday described horrifying scenes of urban warfare. They estimated that 200 homes were destroyed by the helicopter attacks, while medical personnel said at least 12 people were killed.
Most stores remained shuttered, and families cowered at home. Militants patrolling the city streets urged residents to stay inside while the attacks continue.
"Even if we are at home, we are scared that one bullet might enter through the window and kill a family member," said Salem Abdo, a Zinjibar resident. "Explosions are heard dozens of times every hour."
The fighting in the south escalated what had been a devolving situation in the north. On Friday, violent clashes between heavily armed tribesmen and government troops that rocked the Yemeni capital last week spread outside San'a. Now, at least three of Yemen's largest tribes are battling the central government forces, which are under the command of the president's son Ahmed and nephew Yahya.
A tribal militia opposed to President Saleh attacked military installations controlled by Republican Guards in the el-Fardha Nehem region, about 80 kilometers northeast of San'a, prompting the government to call in airstrikes, according to government and tribal sources.
Yemen is a primarily tribal community, particularly in rural areas, and loyalties to tribes runs deep. The Hashid tribe, one of the most powerful, commands hundreds of thousands of Yemenis and many of those are currently in the capital taking on government forces. In Fardha, another tribe controlled two Republican Guard bases as of Sunday, said government and tribal sources.
The uptick in violence has changed the nature of Yemen's protests—which like Egypt started as a peaceful call for transition— to a potentially dangerous armed-conflict scenario, as in Libya. When tribal blood is spilled, the tribal code of honor prioritizes revenge, and it is unclear how either President Saleh—or any possible successor—will be able to patch relations between these domestic constituents in the near future.
Critics accused President Saleh of allowing the militants to seize Zinjibar to distract from three months of mass protests calling for an end to his rule. Mr. Saleh has warned that without him, al Qaeda would seize control of Yemen.
The officials say militants seized tanks Saturday night after the governor, the security chief and the head of an army brigade left the town. Army units clashed with the militants outside the city. Medical officials said on Sunday that six civilians were killed.
Meanwhile, a Yemeni rights activist said on Sunday that a brigade of the powerful Republican Guard run by Mr. Saleh's son has defected to the opposition in a southern province. It is the first reported defection among the elite troops, which have been the core of Mr. Saleh's hold on power despite three months of massive street protests and defections by some military and tribal allies.
Activist Abdul-Rahman Ahmed said a letter from Brig. Gen. Ibrahim al-Jayfi, commander of the Guard's Ninth Brigade, was read to thousands of protesters in the provincial capital of Damar on Sunday.
Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, whose fighters battled Mr. Saleh's troops for five days last week, has called on the Guard to help topple Mr. Saleh. The clashes killed 124 people.
—Farnaz Fassihi in Beirut
contributed to this article.
Source: The Wall Street Journal