Fresh fighting broke out in Yemen's capital today, heightening concerns that increasing division among armed tribal factions and splits in Yemen’s armed forces may lead the Arab world’s poorest nation into full-blown civil war.
Today the elite Republican Guard, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's son, engaged in fierce clashes with soldiers loyal to dissident Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who once served as the "iron fist" of Mr. Saleh's regime but is now one of his most powerful rivals.
The fighting has broken a three-day period of calm that provided some hope that Saleh would return to a peace plan designed by other Gulf nations, reports Raidió Teilifís Éireann. Diplomats had urged Saleh to stay in Saudi Arabia where he spent three months recuperating after a rocket attack, but he returned on Sept. 23, triggering much unrest.
The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that the entrance of Mohsen's troops into the fray since Saleh's return has significantly changed the dynamic of fighting in Sanaa, and could transform what has until now been a largely peace uprising into true civil war.
Mohsen’s troops are now fully intermixed with the protesters; cruising through the camp in the back of armored vehicles, chewing qat in protester’s tents, even being treated alongside injured protesters in the nearby field hospital. Initial doubt over whether the renegade troops would aid their cause has largely been replaced by the prevailing attitude that they are the “heroes and vanguards” of the revolution.
“In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the firqa [Mohsen's troops] but now it’s different, it’s clear to us now that without them we’d be slaughtered,” a young protester leader named Adel told the Monitor on Monday. The fear remains though that their increasingly active role may help justify an even tougher crackdown by the regime on the basis they are fighting armed groups and not civilian demonstrators.
As fighting intensified some resident of Sanaa have begun to flee their homes to avoid being caught in the cross fire, reports Xinhua.
“One rebel of powerful tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar was killed, another five rebels were wounded in the heavy clashes and shelling that rocked the northern neighborhood of Hassaba district in downtown Sanaa on Thursday morning,” said a senior Yemeni official in a Xinhua article. “Also, five civilians were injured after their houses nearby the stronghold of al-Ahmar's residential compound were shelled by random mortars.”
Already there are reports of stray artillery shells hitting civilian homes in Sanaa, which have killed at least one person.
“We appeal to the international community and human rights organizations to intervene to protect our lives,” Mohammed al-Jamali, a resident of an area reportedly being hit with stray shells told Bloomberg.
The situation may see a steep rise in civilian causalities today as a youth group plans to march to from their encampment in Change Square to the area of the city that is home to Saleh’s residence. Organizers say they hope it will be peaceful and they have asked Ahmar’s soldiers not to accompany them to avoid provoking government forces, reports AFP.
“There will be an escalation during the coming two days. The youths will march... to Hedda Street, where the president's residence is,” Walid al-Amari, a youth activist told AFP.
During previous peaceful protests, government forces have shown little restraint or hesitancy when it comes to using force. Last week, at least three protesters were killed by sniper fire. Dozens of other unarmed protesters were killed in separate incidents last week, reports The New York Times.
Saleh has ruled Yemen for 33 years. The demonstrations, which began in January, mark the biggest challenge ever faced by his presidency. Reuters reports that as the situation continues to unravel, Sanaa is “now carved up into spheres of influence of government troops and pro-opposition forces.”