Wed Aug 10, 2011
By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - In Sanaa's battle-scarred Hasaba neighbourhood, the distant chanting of protesters demanding the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is punctuated by gunfire nearby, reminding residents that Yemen's torment may be far from over.
"We can't take much more of this," said Arafat Ahmed, shaking his head as he stuffed bags with bread in his tiny bakery. "Life has come to a halt. It's clear that armed confrontation is the only option until the crisis is resolved."
Bloody street fighting rocked Hasaba, home to Sadeq al-Ahmar, a tribal foe of Saleh, in May after the president reneged again on a Gulf-brokered plan to end his 33 years in power.
The mortar and machinegun clashes subsided after a bomb blast wounded Saleh in his presidential compound, forcing him to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia, where he is recuperating.
Now, with troops again manning checkpoints around the capital, the crackle of shooting in the crumbling alleyways of Hasaba -- and outbreaks of fighting elsewhere in a country awash with guns -- have reignited fears of civil war.
For seven months, tens of thousands of Yemenis, including those in a protest camp not far from Hasaba, have demonstrated against Saleh. But shootouts between government forces and anti-Saleh gunmen are increasingly marring the peaceful protests.
Yemen, the Arab world's poorest state and host to an ambitious al Qaeda branch, borders oil giant Saudi Arabia. Gulf and Western powers fear it could collapse into a failed state on the doorstep of some of the world's largest oil reserves.
Fighting is on the rise in at least five parts of this rugged, mountainous country on the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula. More and more armed men roam the streets of Yemeni cities as suspicions and frustrations multiply.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, wary of turmoil that could give al Qaeda more room to operate, have been pressing Saleh for months to accept a transition plan brokered by Yemen's wealthier neighbours in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Saleh has vowed to return to Yemen, even as U.S. officials urge him to stay away, deepening a political stalemate. Many Yemenis worry that it is too late to stave off a descent into bloodshed that would only compound their misery.
"I think the political solution has been eroded in favour of fighting. But even the fighting will not end the battle," said Yemeni analyst Ali Seif Hassan, citing the standoff in Sanaa between government forces and military units commanded Ali Mohsen, a powerful general who has defected to the opposition.
"When Yemen's capital becomes divided like this, it means Yemen will be broken into more than one entity," he said.
A similar confrontation between pro-Saleh forces and opposition tribesmen has turned Taiz, 200 km (120 miles) south of Sanaa, into another tense and divided city.
Fighting has already forced tens of thousands of Yemenis to flee their homes. Some are from villages shelled during battles between the army and opposition tribesmen. Thousands more have escaped from southern towns engulfed in clashes between troops and suspected al Qaeda militants and other Islamist fighters.
PREPARED FOR THE WORST
Hasaba residents are bracing for the worst. Many have piled sandbags outside their already shell-pocked homes.
At the nearby protest camp, some still believe in peaceful change but fear that violence could eclipse their struggle.
"We still hope to achieve our demands peacefully, but if we can't, it raises the threat of war," said leftist activist Samia al-Aghbari, sitting outside the rows of protest tents, her frowning face framed by a bright pink veil.
Desperation is gripping many Yemenis as fuel shortages and soaring prices overwhelm a country where a third of the people suffer chronic hunger and nearly half live on $2 a day or less.
Some residents, frustrated by their own politicians, are also turning their anger on foreign powers they feel have not put enough pressure on the government to reach a solution.
"If Saudi Arabia or America wanted Saleh to go they would have done it," complained Sanaa shopkeeper Yahya Musallah. "The situation could be finished in less than a month. But they keep waiting and the war will come before they intervene."