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Street fighting in Yemen kills 6

Capital erupts after president refuses to resign

Antigovernment demonstrators in Sana, Yemen, shouted yesterday for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who agreed to exit and then refused to sign the deal Sunday. Antigovernment demonstrators in Sana, Yemen, shouted yesterday for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who agreed to exit and then refused to sign the deal Sunday. (Mohammed Huwais/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Ahmed Al-Haj
Associated Press / May 24, 2011

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SANA, Yemen — Security forces and opposition tribal fighters battled with automatic weapons, mortars, and tanks in the Yemeni capital yesterday, blasting buildings and setting government offices on fire in violence that raised fears of an armed confrontation after the collapse of efforts to negotiate a peaceful exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The street fighting, in which six people were killed and nearly 40 wounded, was the heaviest clash between the pro- and anti-Saleh camps since hundreds of thousands of Yemenis began taking to the streets three months ago in protests demanding the ouster of the president after 32 years in power.

It erupted amid increased tensions after Saleh refused at the last minute on Sunday to sign a US-backed agreement, mediated by Yemen’s powerful Gulf Arab neighbors, under which he would step down in 30 days.

Saleh had promised to sign the deal, but instead, his regime sent mobs of armed supporters into the street Sunday, protesting at embassies, in an orchestrated campaign to demand he stay in power.

The United States expressed growing frustration with Saleh, an ally upon whom Washington has relied to fight Al Qaeda’s branch in the impoverished nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Fearing the turmoil is disrupting the campaign against the terror group, Washington has been trying to manage a transition that will keep some measure of stability.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Obama administration is “deeply disappointed’’ by Saleh’s refusal to sign the accord, saying the Yemeni leader “is turning his back on his commitments and disregarding the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people.’’

Both sides in Yemen’s turmoil have tried to avoid a direct armed confrontation. The protesters are backed by heavily armed tribes and by army units that defected to the opposition, while Saleh has been able to cling to power by retaining the loyalty of the country’s best trained and equipped military and security forces, which are headed by his relatives.

His security forces have cracked down on protesters — killing at least 150 over the past three months — but the two sides’ armed factions have generally eyed each other warily around the capital without major clashes. But yesterday’s fighting underlined how explosive the tensions could be.

The violence erupted outside the Sana home of Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, leader of Yemen’s largest and most powerful tribe, the Hashid. Saleh belongs the tribe, but Ahmar announced in March that the Hashid were joining the popular uprising against the president. Fighting raged for more than six hours, until the US ambassador mediated a cease-fire, according to a ruling party official.

Witnesses said security forces had been setting up roadblocks between the walled compound and the nearby Interior Ministry, and that tribesmen saw it as a provocation. Abdel-Qawi al-Qawsi, an aide to Ahmar, accused security forces of trying to storm the Hashid leader’s residential compound and said tribal fighters counterattacked.

The Hassaba district, where the Ahmar compound and a number of ministries are located, was turned into a battle zone, as tribesmen and security forces battled in the streets outside the Interior Ministry, trading fire with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.

An office building of Yemeni Airlines was on fire, and smoke poured out of a building inside the Interior Ministry compound.

Tanks were seen pulling into the neighborhood and the sound of tank fire was heard. Hashid fighters outside Sana rushed into the capital to reinforce their comrades, one tribal official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Yemen’s tribes are heavily armed, and their fighters virtually are militias loyal to the tribal leader.

Saleh and the opposition have traded accusations that each is leading the country into civil war.

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