Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Yemen security official: Islamists kill 5 soldiers

By AHMED AL-HAJ Associated Press

May 31, 2011

SANAA, Yemen — Radical Islamists who overran a south Yemen town killed five soldiers in an ambush on Tuesday, security officials said, while fresh clashes broke out in the capital between security forces and fighters from the country's most powerful tribal confederation, edging the country toward civil war.

Almost four months of mass street protests across Yemen calling for democratic reforms and the ouster of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh have rocked the stability of this impoverished corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Saleh's security forces shot dead four protesters in the southern city of Taiz Monday, medics said, bringing the two-day death toll there to at least 25.

The upheaval in Yemen has sparked fears that militant groups will take over. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula operates in its weakly governed provinces along with a number of other radicals, like the ones who overran the town of Zinjibar near Yemen's south coast over the weekend.

A Yemeni security official said militants ambushed an army unit driving toward the town Tuesday, killing five soldiers and injuring 12. The militants fired on the army convoy from behind, forcing them to speed into an ambush where other gunmen fired on their cars.

The soldiers killed two militants before fleeing the area, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Hundreds of armed Islamists stormed the town last week, seizing banks and government offices before setting up barricades to solidify their control. Shelling by army units outside the city failed to dislodge them over the weekend while sending residents fleeing.

Resident Hilmi Ali, 21, said army shelling over the weekend appeared to fall randomly over the town, striking a mosque and four houses in his neighborhood and killing seven of his neighbors.

The Islamists overran a police administration building and intelligence office and could be seen over the weekend driving police cars around town, Ali said. Dozens of families fled.

"We walked on our feet to leave the city," he said by phone from the city of Aden.

It remains unclear whether the Islamists who seized Zinjibar are connected to al-Qaida. Other armed Islamist groups have sought refuge in the area, including some who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and others who fought with Saleh's government in a 1994 civil war with the south.

Before Tuesday's ambush, the Interior Ministry said 22 soldiers had been killed since Friday. It remains unclear how many civilians and militants have been killed.

In the capital, Sanaa, fresh gunfights and rounds of artillery fire broke out Tuesday between government troops and fighters loyal to the country's most powerful tribal leader, marking the collapse of a fragile cease-fire.

The fighting brings head-to-head two of Yemen's most powerful men: Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, head of the country's Hasid tribal confederation and Saleh, who has heavily stocked the security forces with relatives and allies during his 33-year rule.

Clashes resumed overnight after the failure of a days-old cease-fire that ended last week's clashes, which killed 124 people. Tribal fighters withdrew Sunday from the Local Administration Ministry, one of more than a dozen ministries and government buildings they'd seized in the Hassaba neighborhood, also home to the family compound of Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, the Hasid leader.

Abdel-Qawi al-Qasi, a spokesman for al-Ahmar, said that Saleh's force broke the agreement by not withdrawing from buildings they had occupied, especially those around al-Amhar's house.

Clashes erupted early Tuesday and continued through the morning, with tribal fighters seizing a number of new buildings, including the upper house of parliament, the headquarters of Saleh's ruling party and a key street leading to the airport.

"Any place that poses any danger to us and they are firing at us from, we will take it," al-Qasi said.

Al-Qasi said the tribesmen had also seized the Interior Ministry. Yemeni state TV called the fighters "gangs" and denied they'd seized the building.

At least one person was killed — a man who was driving through the neighborhood, said witness Abdel-Waid Ali. Official information on casualties was not immediately available.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has clung to power despite daily protests, defections by key allies and intense pressure from the United States and powerful neighbors like Saudi Arabia to transfer his powers.

His security forces have waged a brutal crackdown that has included sniper attacks on unarmed protesters, and he has several times pledged to step down under a deal with the opposition only to back out at the last minute.

Beyond the capital, violence also roiled the southern city of Taiz, which has been a hotbed of anti-government protests since the early days of the uprising.

Medics said government troops fired on protesters Tuesday, killing four and bringing the two-day death toll to at least 25.

Soldiers backed by tanks and bulldozers moved in over the weekend, smashing a tent camp the protesters had held in a central square and destroying a field hospital that had been set up in anticipation of such an attack.

On Tuesday, the U.N.'s human rights office in Geneva said it received reports from Yemen that more than 50 people have been killed by pro-government forces in Taiz since Sunday. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay cautioned that the reports "remain to be fully verified."

Pillay said in a statement that "such reprehensible acts of violence and indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians by armed security officers must stop immediately."

Government forces opened fire again Tuesday on demonstrators who had regrouped for marches on several main streets, said activist Boushra al-Maqtali.

Protesters set fire to tires and threw stones at the police, who fired rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas to disperse them, said another activist, Ghazi al-Samie.

"The city is boiling," al-Samie said. "All shops have been closed and government employees did not go to work and armored military vehicles blocked all the roads leading to the city to prevent people from nearing districts to join the protesters."

Cease-Fire in Yemen Capital Breaks Down


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.