Yemeni tribal rebels take over military camp

May 27, 2011 - 8:29 AM
Mideast Yemen

The head of the powerful Hashid tribe, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, center, walks with his body guards near his house in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, May 26, 2011. Yemen's government said 28 people were killed in an explosion at a weapons storage site Thursday, but the opposition claimed military forces shelled a building used by tribal fighters who have risen up against President Ali Abdullah Saleh and warn of civil war if he refuses to step down. (AP Photo/Mohammed Al-Sayaghi)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Fighting that rocked Sanaa for the past five days spread beyond the capital on Friday as Yemeni tribesmen opposed to the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized a Republican Guard military camp in battles that left dozens dead and prompted airstrikes by government warplanes, according to a tribal leader.

At least 109 people have been killed by this week's street battles in Sanaa between security forces loyal to Saleh and fighters from Yemen's largest tribe, the Hashid, which has joined the popular uprising against the longtime ruler. The fighting has hiked fears the country could be thrown into civil war as Saleh clings to power in the face of months of peaceful protests demanding his ouster.

Friday's assault on the base in the el-Fardha Nehem region was the most significant escalation yet outside the capital. Tribal fighters stormed the camp, 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Sanaa, and killed tens of troops — including the base commander — in the fighting, said Sheik Ali Saif, a leader from the Hashid tribe.

After the Hashid fighters captured the camp, government airplanes bombed them and other forces clashed with them on the ground, he said. At least 12 tribesmen were killed, Saif said.

Saif said the tribe attacked the base to prevent soldiers there from moving in Sanaa to reinforce government troops there. The Republican Guard is one of the best trained and best equipped forces in Yemen, commanded by one of Saleh's sons, and has remained loyal to the president even as other military units have joined the movement against his rule.

Yemeni state TV on Friday warned residents in Sanaa neighborhoods that have been engulfed in fighting to evacuate in expectation of further fighting. Fighting spilled into new districts around Sanaa on Thursday, with government forces using artillery and mortars to blast tribesmen as frightened residents fled or cowered in basements.

The head of the Hashid tribe, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, demanded on Thursday that Saleh step down or else be held accountable for "dragging the country to a civil war."

The battles broke out Monday after an attempt by government forces to storm al-Ahmar's compound in the heart of Sanaa. By Thursday, the clashes had widened to include areas around Sanaa's airport, and other tribes had joined in alongside al-Ahmar. The violence poses a major new threat to Saleh because of the power tribes hold around the country. Under Yemen's ancient codes, tribal leaders can declare that members follow their orders above all others — potentially forcing soldiers in pro-Saleh units to choose between their clan and military loyalties.

So far, there have been no apparent signals of mass defections from the units that have stayed loyal to Saleh. the president has shown he will not go easily. He has managed to ride out swelling anti-government demonstrations for more than three months, defections of military commanders and pressure from Arab neighbors and Western powers to leave office.

The escalating violence prompted the State Department to order nonessential U.S. diplomats and their families to leave the country. Britain said it would scale back its embassy staff, while Germany and other countries issued travel warnings.