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."