Yemeni protesters seize military base; clashes kill dozens
Takeover could signal start of regime’s collapse
SANA, Yemen - Thousands of protesters backed by military defectors seized a base of the elite Republican Guards yesterday, weakening the control of Yemen’s embattled president over this poor, fractured Arab nation.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces fired on unarmed demonstrators elsewhere in the capital, killing scores, wounding hundreds, and sparking international condemnation.
The protesters, joined by soldiers from the renegade 1st Armored Division, stormed the base without firing a single shot, according to witnesses and security officials.
Some carried sticks and rocks. They used sandbags to erect barricades to protect their comrades from the possibility of weapons fire from inside the base - but none came - and the Republican Guards eventually fled, leaving their weapons behind.
Although the base was not particularly large - the Republican Guards have bigger ones in the capital and elsewhere in Yemen - its capture buoyed the protesters’ spirits and signaled what could be the start of the collapse of Saleh’s 33-year-old regime.
“It was unbelievable,’’ said protester Ameen Ali Saleh, of storming the base on the west side of the major al-Zubairy road, which runs through the heart of Sana. “We acted like it was us who had the weapons, not the soldiers.’’
“Now the remainder of the regime will finally crumble,’’ said another demonstrator, Mohammed al-Wasaby. “Our will is more effective than weapons. The soldiers loyal to Saleh just ran away.’’
As clashes continued into the night, several loud explosions rocked Sana, and a mortar round hit the Islamic University of Al-Iman, killing one and injuring two others. The cause of the explosions was not known.
Saleh went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after a June attack on his Sana compound and has not returned to Yemen, but has resisted calls to resign.
A final showdown may well pit the Republican Guards, led by Saleh’s son and heir apparent Ahmed, against the soldiers of the 1st Armored Division, another elite outfit that has fought in all of Yemen’s wars over the past two decades, and their tribal allies in the capital.
The Republican Guards and the Special Forces, also led by the president’s son, have long been thought to be the regime’s last line of defense against the seven-month-old uprising.
The storming of the base capped two days of clashes in the capital that have left at least 50 people dead and nearly 1,000 injured, mostly demonstrators.
Government forces used snipers stationed on rooftops, antiaircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars against the unarmed protesters. An infant girl, a 14-year-old boy, and three rebel soldiers were among the estimated two-dozen people killed yesterday.
The violence led authorities to close Sana’s airport and order four flights to go instead to the southern port city of Aden, according to an airport official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
But even Aden did not escape bloodshed. Three protesters were wounded in clashes with government forces, witnesses there said.
In the southern city of Taiz, at least four protesters were killed and 40 others were wounded in clashes between antiregime demonstrators and security forces, according to witnesses.
Much is at stake in Yemen for the United States, its Gulf Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the West.
Yemen is close to the major oil fields of the Gulf region and overlooks key shipping lanes in the Red and Arabian seas. It is home to one of the world’s most dangerous Al Qaeda branches, whose militants have staged or inspired a series of attacks on US territory.
The clashes coincided with a flurry of diplomatic activity designed to resolve the crisis.
UN envoy Gamal bin Omar and Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, secretary-general of a regional alliance that groups Yemen’s six Gulf Arab neighbors, were in Yemen yesterday. Saleh and King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, met in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. “The situation is tense. It can’t continue like this,’’ bin Omar said.