Yemen edged closer to civil war as anti-government tribesmen battled security forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, around key ministries for a second day in the capital, Sana’a.
Witnesses reported that gunmen loyal to Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, head of Yemen’s most powerful tribe, the Hashid, had seized the interior ministry on Tuesday and was in control of a central area of the capital after heavy fighting involving mortars, tanks and machine guns claimed at least 10 lives on both sides.
The clashes encompassed a broad area of Sana’a. Yemeni security forces urged residents of the Hasaba district to flee the continuous shelling and firefights. A communiqué from the US embassy, which has closed its consular services, warned against movement in the city, citing “the presence of armed militia in the area and gunfire that has been occurring throughout the day”.
Fighting began on Monday after the tribesmen barred access to a school that they said was being used as a government arms cache – a claim denied by state media.
“These are attempts by this regime to ignite the domestic situation and to provoke strife and civil war among the sons of Yemen,” said a statement on Mr Ahmar’s website.
Mr Ahmar announced the defection of his tribe, to which Mr Saleh belongs, to the opposition in March, leading to fears among analysts of a violent resolution to four months of demonstrations in the volatile Arabian state.
“It remains to be seen whether Saleh will allow the crisis to escalate into a full-scale civil war or will recalculate his options,” noted Abdullah Hamidaddin, a Saudi-based Yemen expert. “He moves very carefully and may just be gauging his level of support within Yemen and internationally.”
The violence reignited after Mr Saleh again refused to sign a deal to transfer power on Sunday. His armed supporters then mobilised throughout the capital, even briefly surrounding Gulf and western envoys advocating the plan within the embassy of the United Arab Emirates.
Diplomatic efforts to ease the president from power have been suspended because of the “lack of suitable conditions”, according to a statement from the Gulf Co-operation Council.
The GCC, the European Union and the US still hope for a negotiated settlement to the crisis.
But as casualties mount, western diplomats discuss the possibility of withholding aid and imposing sanctions on the Yemeni regime if the president continues to spurn mediation.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, levelled unprecedented criticism at the Yemeni government after Sunday’s aborted signing.
Yemen’s main opposition bloc, which would have presided over a transitional government according to the Gulf plan, accused Mr Saleh of employing violence to undermine the demonstrations against his rule.