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Anti-Saleh fighters seize military base

Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, head of the Hashid tribe prays during funerals of tribesmen killed by Yemeni security forces in Sanaa. (A

Source | AP
SANAA | 27 May 2011

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

At least 109 people have been killed in this week's street battles in Sanaa between security forces loyal to Saleh and fighters from Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid, which has joined the popular uprising against the longtime ruler. The fighting has raised 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.

The violence poses a major new threat to Saleh because of tribal loyalties among Yemenis. The Hashid groups northern-based tribes numbering hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, giving the Hashid's leaders enormous power. It includes Saleh's own tribe, the Sanhan, and the confederation's influence can be gauged by the fact that around half the Sanhan have abandoned the president since the Hashid leadership announced it was joining the opposition weeks ago.

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

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

When two military helicopters landed about 3 km from the base to unload reinforcements, tribal fighters assaulted them, capturing the helicopters and a number of troops, and the fighters shot down a third helicopter, Saif said. There was no immediate government comment on the fighting.

Saif said the tribe attacked the base to prevent soldiers there from reinforcing government troops in Sanaa. 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.


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