Friday, September 23, 2011

Yemen capital gripped by fighting, shelling

By Erika Solomon and Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA | Thu Sep 22, 2011
(Reuters) - Fighting between pro- and anti-government forces spread through Yemen's capital on Thursday and snipers shot dead two protesters and wounded 14 others, diminishing the chances of a diplomatic solution to prevent the country sliding into civil war.
Gunbattles and shelling between state troops and soldiers backing a protest movement bent on unseating President Ali Abdullah Saleh shook areas near "Change Square," the name demonstrators have given the street where thousands have camped out for eight months demanding an end to his 33-year rule.
In the evening, one or two shells hit the southern end of the protest camp, killing at one person, a spokesman for the demonstrators said.
Across Sanaa, fighting raged with heavy explosions and gunfire in Hasaba, a neighborhood where the powerful anti-Saleh tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar lives. Clashes between his tribesmen and government forces dragged Yemen to the brink of civil war some months ago before a ceasefire was agreed.
A total of seven people were killed in Thursday's clashes by late afternoon, including two government soldiers and two armed tribesmen fighting alongside them, the interior ministry said in a statement. A guard at the house of an opposition figure also died when Saleh loyalists bombarded his house.
Snipers said to be lurking on the upper floors of buildings killed two protesters and wounded at least 14 around Change Square, a doctor at the square's clinic said. Angry protesters set fire to a house where they believed snipers were hiding, while medics set up a blood donation campaign for the wounded.
Negotiations on a peaceful transfer of power have stalled, and the U.N.'s Yemen envoy said the country on the south end of the Arabian Peninsula would be torn apart unless a political solution is reached soon between Saleh's camp and his foes.
Saleh has been in nearby Saudi Arabia since June recovering from wounds suffered in a June assassination attempt, leaving Yemen in a tense political limbo that on Sunday exploded into a full-blown military showdown that has so far killed 86 people.
"Unless there is a deal, or unless there a breakthrough to a political solution...the country will continue to fall apart and violence will spread to other parts of the country," United Nations envoy Jamal bin Omar told Reuters.
"It's very urgent that Yemenis make up their mind and agree on a reasonable way forward."
Yemen's deterioration is causing alarm abroad because central governance has unraveled, leaving a gun-ridden power vacuum filled by al Qaeda militants and separatist factions near vulnerable oil shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Hopes are fading that a solid ceasefire between government troops and soldiers loyal to a general who defected from Saleh in March can be forged to salvage a deal for him to cede power to launch a reform process.
Saleh has on three occasions backed out of a plan brokered by Gulf neighbors for him to step down. Yemenis eager to get on with their lives said they feared that negotiators did not have much time left before violence spiraled out of control.
"Today it's fine, maybe tomorrow too," said driver Mohammed, as he waited in a line of cars to pass a checkpoint. "They've got a few days, maybe a week to get some kind of political development. After that, I worry there will be a slaughter."
In parts of Sanaa unaffected by fighting, many Yemenis went about their business, going to restaurants while families preparing for evening wedding processions draped their cars in lace and red flowers.
But more and more checkpoints are strewn across roads and wary soldiers with rifles linger at street corners.
"Every other street corner seems to have soldiers with guns or trucks with missiles trained at someone," said one street vendor, shaking his head as he peered out his shop door.
"You feel like now it's calm but at any second the city could explode into a war zone and we'd be stuck here."
A truce called by Yemen's vice president earlier this week broke down in just a matter of hours.
"There are some initiatives being discussed for a political solution under the supervision of Jamal bin Omar and we hope these efforts succeed. Their failure will push this country into more violence," a high-ranking opposition official said.
More than 400 have been killed since the grassroots revolt against repressive Saleh family rule began in January.
Spreading lawlessness could give fertile ground to al Qaeda, whose militants in the past few months have seized cities in a province just east of a key oil shipping channel.
Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdbullatif al-Zayani flew into Sanaa this week to try and resurrect the deal but left after two days with nothing to show for his efforts.
That initiative would see Saleh leave office a matter of months after signing it.
"The only way forward is a political solution, a political process that is inclusive," Bin Omar said.
"We want all the political factions and trends to participate so that we are not in a situation where there not only two sides. There are too many political actors and they will need to participate in this process."

President Saleh’s Surprise Return to Yemen

Sep 23, 2011

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has unexpectedly returned to the Yemen capital of Sana’a after three months in Saudi Arabia, according to Yemen State TV and the Yemen Embassy in Washington. State TV did not show footage of Saleh’s arriving in Sana’a but reported that the president arrived by private plane and is in good health.

“Abdullah Saleh, President of the Republic of Yemen returned to Yemen after a three month long medical stay in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” according to an embassy statement.

Saleh’s first order of business was to call for a ceasefire and continued negotiations, the Associated Press reported. The president’s office released the written statement today, urging leaders to end the fighting immediately.

Saleh has been in Saudi Arabia since June for medical treatment after an assassination attempt, a bomb attack on the presidential palace that reportedly left the aging president severely injured. The announcement of his return comes amid a violent week in Yemen. More than 100 unarmed protesters have been killed since Sunday when the elite Republican Guards, led by Saleh’s son, clashed with opposition forces loyal to the former army Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar. Al-Ahmar defected in March to lead the First Armored Division.

Local journalists told ABC News that heavy gunfire broke out this morning in Sana’a after the news of the president’s arrival. Pro-Saleh supporters were chanting, “Thank God our leader has returned,” freelance journalist Tom Finn said.

After Friday prayers, local media reported, thousands of pro-Saleh and anti-Saleh protesters took to the streets of the capital to stage rival rallies.

State TV filled this morning’s broadcast with images of Saleh supporters waving flags and photographs of the president, but Saleh’s return could spark further violence.

“His return means more divisions, more escalation and confrontations,” Abdel-Hadi al-Azizi, a protest leader, told the Associated Press. “We are on a very critical escalation.”

Meanwhile, Abdu al-Janadi, the deputy minister of information, said, “[Saleh's return] will put an end to a lot of dispute that has been going on.”

Ceasefire negotiations stalled again this week after Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary General Abdullahtif al-Zayani flew to Yemen but left after two days, defeated. The Yemeni government agreed to a truce Tuesday after negotiations with Western envoys but the ceasefire broke down hours later, the BBC reported. A new attempt by the GCC to end the crisis ended Wednesday without success and rumors have been swirling Friday morning that a new non-GCC deal is in the works.

Saudi Arabia and the United States have attempted to broker a deal from abroad that would form a national unity government but the president has repeatedly backed out at the last minute, extending the eight-month-long stalemate.

But Washington is still hopeful. State Dept spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “We want to see Yemen move forward on the basis of the GCC proposal whether President Saleh is in or out of the country. He can make that happen by signing this accord, stepping down from power and allowing his country to move on.”

In a sign interpreted by some as progress, Saleh authorized his vice president to negotiate for him last week on the Gulf initiative, but no agreement was signed. Saleh has been clinging to his 33-year rule since January, in the face of violent protests in the Arab world’s poorest nation. About 400 protesters have reportedly been killed since January and 15 people were killed Thursday.