Fighting subsides in Yemeni capital, but not demands for change

McClatchy NewspapersMay 27, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets Friday to reiterate their demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh resign, but the fierce fighting that had claimed as many as 100 lives this week in the capital had largely subsided.

Witnesses reported airstrikes by government fighter planes after members of the Nehm tribe assaulted a military camp about 50 miles outside the capital, killing an unknown number of government troops.

But Sanaa remained calm, if tense, even as Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, a powerful adversary of the president, vowed to send his supporters back into battle if Saleh's security forces tried to attack his compound again. Saleh didn't hold his usual Friday rally of supporters.

"If Saleh wants a peaceful revolution, we are ready," Ahmar said, "If he wants war, we will fight."

Ahmar's forces retained their hold on the Hasaba neighborhod, an area of middle-class homes and government buildings that had been the center of most of this week's fighting. A tour of the area found Ahmar's tribal forces roaming the nearly empty streets at will. Stores were shuttered, most of the residents had fled and Ahmar's forces controlled the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of the Interior.

Buildings around the Ahmar compound wore the destruction of the past days. The headquarters of Yemenia Airlines appeared structurally unsound, its windows shattered, and nearby homes were severely damaged, roofless and pockmarked from exploding mortar shells.

Ahmar's compound itself showed signs that it had taken several direct hits from high-explosive shells.

The physical damage, however, paled in comparison with the toll the fighting apparently has taken on the president's relationship to the nation's tribes.

Saleh has maintained his more-than-three-decade-hold on power largely by his deft ability to navigate the complex world of Yemeni tribal politics; a skill that's earned him the nickname of "the fox of the desert."

Those days appear to be over, as members of several tribes asserted that they've dropped previous rivalries to join Ahmar in battling Saleh.

"The tribes of Yemen stand together against the criminal president," Sheikh Abdulrahman Hazza al Dhaban said as he lunched with a group of tribesman who came to Sanaa to offer Ahmar support.

Dhaban's tribe is affiliated with the Bakils, Yemen's second largest tribal confederation. Traditionally, the Bakils are rivals of the Hashids, the confederation that the Ahmar family heads.

Within Dhaban's large sitting room, its walls pockmarked by bullets, a photo of Dhaban's brother shaking hands with Saleh still held a place of pride even though Saleh no longer had his support.

Such shifts in allegiance have been commonplace among Yemen's tribes. Ahmar's father, Sheikh Abdullah al Ahmar, was a key Saleh ally until his death. Now, however, the Ahmars are strictly aligned against Saleh, with one brother, Hamid, a wealthy businessman, a key backer of the anti-Saleh movement.

Yemenis who've been demonstrating against Saleh's regime since February continued, however, to distance themselves from the fighting, emphasizing that they don't want the past days' events to overshadow their peaceful protests outside Sanaa University.

"This is not civil war now, this is tribal fighting," said Abdulsalem al Ashmaily, a demonstrator originally from Taiz, where Yemen's tribes hold comparatively little sway. "Our focus remains here, in the square."

Still, they called for Western governments to take tougher action against Saleh, who's been a key American ally in the fight against al Qaida.

"Obama, you are embarrassing yourself," said Nader al Qurshi, a university student who's been taking part in demonstrations for months. "Make this killer get out of our country."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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