SAN’A, Yemen(ANN)Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh warned his opponents and the foreign community about trying to oust him from power, amid escalating clashes in the nation’s capital and a pointed call from President Barack Obama that he resign. Mr. Saleh’stougher position represents a prickly challenge for the international community’s resolve to keep the fragile nation from civil war and support Arab democracy movements in the Middle East.
At least 35 people died Wednesday in ferocious battles between pro- and antigovernment forces, the third day of fighting since Mr. Saleh refused to sign a deal brokered by Arab diplomats and supported by Washington that offered him and his family immunity in return for leaving power.
In an interview with the Reuters news agency, Mr. Saleh, who has led Yemen throughout its modern history, struck a defiant tone, saying he would make “no concessions” to his political opponents and that he wouldn’t capitulate to the use of force against him. “The truth of the matter that everyone should understand is that we do not take foreign orders,” he said. The political stalemate and violence was “an internal matter.”
The clashes that have transformed parts of San’a into an urban war zone this week represent one of the worst-case scenarios for U.S. policy makers. The battles pit pro-government security forces under the command of Mr. Saleh’s relatives that previously have received U.S. training and weapons and heavily armed tribesmen who switched loyalties away from the leader to the opposition that demands an end to his 33-year rule.
The U.S. Department of State on Wednesday warned Americans to leave Yemen due to “terrorist activities and civil unrest.”
U.S. military assistance to Yemen over recent years was supposed to help eradicate the entrenched al Qaeda cells that have established havens in lawless parts of the country. Officials in Washington and the region fear that a protracted battle for power will disrupt U.S. counterterrorism activities and leave a power vacuum and chaos.
Mr. Obama spoke of such concern during a meeting in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron, after which he made a direct call for Mr. Saleh to step aside. The terms of the deal were intended to allow Mr. Saleh a dignified exit after more than three months of national protests against him, provide him and his family safety from prosecution and allow him limited influence over the transitional government.
“We call on President Saleh to move immediately on his commitment to transfer power,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference in London.
About 10,000 tribesmen from the Hashid clan, the most powerful Yemeni tribal confederation, have streamed into the capital since Sunday. Organized into platoon-size units, they have used rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles in battles against more heavily armed government forces for control of key areas of central San’a, according to tribal leaders. By late Tuesday night the Hashids controlled at least five key government offices, including buildings belonging to the Ministry of Interior, the country’s state news agency and the Ministry of Tourism, both government and tribal officials said.Since Sunday at least 72 people have been killed in fighting—including soldiers, tribesmen and civilians—and another 170 have died since anti-regime protests started in January.
Fighting spread Tuesday night to the area of San’a close to the international airport, causing the government to divert all flights away from San’a to the southern port city of Aden. Troops from the pro-Saleh Republican Guard closed the main airport road as well, amid extended bouts of explosions and gun fire.
A senior member of the Hashid tribe said his men had recovered large caches of weapons hidden in government buildings, which he and his followers claim as evidence that government troops were preparing to attack them and other political opponents of the president.
Presidential spokesman Ahmed Al-Soufi denied that soldiers were stockpiling weapons in the capital. He criticized the international community for not condemning the political opposition for the violence. “In no country in the world have five ministries been taken by gunmen amid silence by the international community,” Mr. Soufi said.
A senior Ministry of Interior official said that at least 30,000 troops from Yemen’s elite Republican Guard and Central Security forces had deployed in the capital, seeking to regain control. These units are led by Mr. Saleh’s son, Ahmed and nephew, Yahya and are the main recipients of U.S. military aid and training. The last known delivery of U.S. weapons to Yemen forces was in January.
Republican Guard units erected road blocks at the main entrances to San’a, blocking passage of most vehicles, apparently in a bid to keep more Hashid supporters from coming to the capital. One resident complained he had been stuck on the outskirts of the capital for 21 hours, due to traffic jams and security sweeps.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, the body compromised of Arab oil producers, suspended its diplomatic efforts on Sunday, and it remains unclear what its next step will be. It had no comment Wednesday. U.S. officials haven’t clearly laid out a plan for how to force Mr. Saleh from office since negotiations broke down.
Mr. Saleh’s spurning of the plan appears to have left the international community with few palatable options. Diplomats don’t yet appear to be talking about non-lethal United Nations intervention, as occurred in Libya. And arming the opposition, which has a large tribal contingent, is not a viable policy, given the close links between some of Yemen’s tribes and al Qaeda cells that are receiving haven in their ancestral lands.