Forces loyal to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh have this morning fired at protesters demanding an end to his three-decade-old rule in a conflict that has brought the state to the brink of civil war.
In other parts of the capital, tribesmen siding with the protesters have fought pitched street battles with Saleh’s troops, including his special forces which were set up to fight al Qaeda, for control of government buildings. More than 350 people have been killed since the uprising started in January, but least 135 of them have been killed in the past 10 days in a marked escalation that began when tribal groups started fighting government troops in the capital Sanaa.
Worries are growing that Yemen, home to a branch of al Qaeda known as AQAP and next to the world’s biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia, could implode and become a failed state that poses a risk to global oil supplies and security, Reuters said. Political veteran Saleh has backed away three times at the last minute from signing a Gulf-led deal to step down, clinging to power despite global pressure to resign and the defection of ministers and military leaders to the opposition.
“But even if the president would agree, and so far he has shown no intention, one could not ensure the transition to go smoothly given that there are so many risks involved,” said Christian Koch, director of international studies at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. Saleh’s special forces were deployed to help “clean up” a ministry held by tribal forces, the Defence Ministry said on Thursday, as battles near the airport briefly grounded flights.
The outside world has had little leverage on events in Yemen, where tribal allegiances are the most powerful element in a volatile social fabric, analysts said. Saudi Arabia, which has strong, longstanding ties with Yemeni tribes, is likely to try to apply another round of pressure on Saleh to step aside to avert disaster in a country of 23 million that is awash with guns.
Yemen is engulfed in multiple conflicts, with street battles between tribal groups and Saleh’s forces in Sanaa, popular unrest across the country and fighting against AQAP and other Islamist militants who seized the coastal city of Zinjibar. The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of AQAP attacks, fear al Qaeda will exploit the instability to make Yemen a launch pad for more attacks. In 2010 Yemen said it would set up special forces in four of its provinces to fight AQAP.
In Sanaa, pro-Saleh forces have been fighting the powerful Hashed tribal confederation led by Sadeq al-Ahmar, with mortars, machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades for nearly two weeks.
The capital is split, with Saleh loyalists holding the south against tribesmen and renegade military units in the north. One constant factor is Yemen’s crippling poverty. Jobs and food are scarce, corruption is rampant and about 40 percent of the population struggles to live on less than $2 a day.