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Yemenis flee capital as clashes rage

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa Ma

Source | Reuters
Sanaa | 25 May 2011

Yemenis fled the capital on Wednesday to escape escalating clashes between loyalists and opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who said he would make no more concessions to those seeking his ouster.

Sporadic machinegun fire rang out for the third day in the sandbagged streets around the mansion of an influential tribal leader who has backed protesters seeking to overthrow the longtime ruler after repeated international mediation failed.

Black smoke rose from the compound of Sadiq al-Ahmar, at the centre of the clashes that have killed at least 39 people since Monday, when his guards first exchanged fire with loyalist forces they accused of stockpiling weapons at a nearby school.

"What happened was a provocative act to drag us into civil war, but it is limited to the Ahmar sons. They bear responsibility for shedding the blood of innocent civilians," Saleh told selected media including Reuters.

"Until this second, they are attacking the Interior Ministry. But we don't want to widen the confrontation," he said. "They have chosen this and they made the wrong decision to confront the state with this kind of violence."

The fighting, the most sustained clashes in Sanaa since protests against Saleh's rule began in February, erupted on Monday, a day after the president refused at the last minute to sign a Gulf-brokered deal that would ease him out of power.

Saleh has backed out of previous deals, but Sunday's turnabout appeared to have sparked a major reaction, coming after loyalist gunmen trapped Western and Arab diplomats in the United Arab Emirates embassy for hours.

Both sides blamed each other for the violence, which the opposition said could start a civil war. The bloodshed dimmed prospects for a political solution to a popular revolt inspired by protests that swept aside the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

Saleh said the deal remained on the table: "I am ready to sign within a national dialogue and a clear mechanism. If the mechanism is sound, we will sign the transition of power deal and we will give up power."

"No more concessions after today," he said.

Control of ministries

In the capital Sanaa, fighters in civilian clothes roamed the streets in some districts and sporadic bursts of machinegun fire punctuated the air. There was no word on fresh casualties.

Long lines of cars snaked out of the city, even as gunmen blocked entrances to prevent tribesmen from bringing in reinforcements to the capital, witnesses said.

In the neighbourhoods close to the fighting, men fled with suitcases and women carried their babies in the streets, seeking safety elsewhere.

"It's no longer possible to stay in Sanaa. The confrontations will reach all parts of the city," said Murad Abdullah as he left by car. "I am afraid for my life. I will go to my village in Ibb. The situation there is safe."

Witnesses and officials said supporters of Ahmar, head of the Hashed tribal federation to which Saleh's Sanhan tribe also belongs, were controlling the trade ministry and local administration ministry buildings, among others.

Televised images of the al-Ahmar compound showed tribesmen rushing through opulent but dusty halls, their floors spattered with blood, as they helped colleagues wounded in the fighting.

"This is an attempt to drag the revolution from its peaceful path," opposition politician Hamid al-Ahmar, brother to Sadiq al-Ahmar, said on Al Jazeera television.

"But this is understood, and it won't affect the path of the revolution. The popular revolution."


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