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Yemen's Saleh injured in escalating violence as residents scurry for shelter

A spokesman said Yemen's President Saleh was only slightly injured in an attack on his compound, but the president's failure to appear on TV tonight raises questions about his condition.

By Jeb BooneContributor / June 3, 2011

A man walks past a burning vehicle belonging to Yemeni security forces that was set on fire by antigovernment protesters during clashes in Taiz, Yemen, on Friday, June 3. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded when opposition tribesmen determined to topple him hammered his palace in Sanaa with rockets Friday in a major escalation of nearly two weeks of fighting with government forces.

Yemen Lens/AP

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Sanaa, Yemen

Updated at 4:00 p.m. ET with news of Saleh's radio address.

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Turmoil erupted in the affluent Hadda district of the Yemeni capital this afternoon as fighting erupted near the home of prominent tribal leader Hamid al-Ahmar. Several moments later, mortar shells struck the presidential compound, injuring President Ali Abdullah Saleh and several other prominent officials.

Residents scrambled from restaurants, leaving their lunches on the table as rocket-propelled grenades flew across a major thoroughfare. Some of the locals, already armed as a precautionary measure, dove behind cars and upturned tables and began firing randomly in desperate confusion.

“Get out, can’t you hear the artillery?” screamed one shop owner at confused residents as he slammed the steel doors of his store shut.

Fighting in Sanaa over the past 10 days has been the fiercest clashes in the capital since 1962, when a revolution launched to topple a despotic imam ended in victory for the republicans – a group of rebel soldiers that included Mr. Saleh, who eventually became president in 1978. Now he faces an unprecedented challenge from tribesmen, rebels, and southern secessionists who have joined forces to oppose his 32-year rule.

Saleh TV appearance postponed until he recovers

Presidential spokesman Adel al-Jandi confirmed on state TV that a mosque at the presidential compound was shelled during Friday prayers, killing three members of Saleh's elite Republican Guards and some other officers. He said Saleh himself was slightly injured but was in good health.

State TV had originally announced that Saleh would speak to the nation in a televised address, but later reneged and said the president would issue a press statement later Friday evening. Mr. Jandi was less specific, saying the president would speak once he was recovered. While the president did give a radio address later tonight, speaking in a labored voice, his failure to appear on television raises speculation that his injuries may be more severe than originally reported by local Arabic press.

Shelling in Hadda, a southern district of Sanaa, continued into the night as more residents fled the violence, which was directed toward the homes of Hamid al-Ahmar and Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation). Today’s assassination attempt on the president is the culmination of 10 days of heavy clashes between Saleh loyalists and tribal leaders led by Hamid al-Ahmar and his eldest brother, Sadiq al-Ahmar.

Sadiq al-Ahmar, the titular head of the Hashid tribal confederation that has been locked in pitched battles with loyalist military forces, has denied any involvement with the attempt on the president’s life. Given the injuries sustained by high-ranking government officials, the attack appears to have been incredibly well timed and uncannily accurate – but not beyond the capability of the powerful Ahmar family and its allies.

Protesters disavow Ahmars' violent approach

At Friday prayers at Sanaa’s Change Square protest camp, hundreds of thousands of protesters witnessed smoke rising from the direction of shelling in two locations in Yemen’s capital as families rushed back to parked cars.

Since fighting began nearly two weeks ago, shells launched from surrounding mountains have had to travel over the heads of protesters to reach their tribal targets more than a mile away.

Protesters, forced to the background of Yemen’s unrest, have vowed to remain peaceful in spite of enduring the iron fist of Saleh’s security forces for more than four months.

“We do not support the al-Ahmars and we vow to remain peaceful,” says Jamal Nasser, spokesperson for Yemen’s largest protest organization, the Coordinating Council for the Youth Revolution of Change.

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