Yemen's Saleh wounded in attack on presidential compound

McClatchy NewspapersJune 3, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — Once one of America's most-valued allies in the war on terror but now considered a liability by the Obama administration, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded Friday in the first violence to strike the presidential compound here since demonstrators began demanding Saleh's resignation four months ago.

At least four and perhaps as many as seven presidential guards were killed in the attack, and several members of Saleh's government also were wounded, including the prime minister and the speaker of parliament.

Word that Saleh had been wounded was greeted with jubilation in the sprawling protest camp that has grown up outside Sanaa University. Some demonstrators broke out in spontaneous prayer while others remained transfixed to television coverage.

But the mood in the rest of the capital was anxious, and the streets were empty as residents prepared for more fighting.

Yemeni government officials blamed the attack on forces loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, the head of Yemen's powerful Hashid tribal federation and a bitter rival of the president, but an Ahmar family spokesman denied that they were behind the attack,

"If they had been, they would not deny it," said Abdulqawi al Qaisi.

According to a Yemeni government official who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters, Saleh and his advisers had gathered for Friday prayers when two artillery shells crashed into the presidential compound's mosque. The imam conducting the service was among the wounded, the official said.

The extent of Saleh's wounds was unknown. The government official said the president had suffered "minor bruises and scratches." But Saleh, who's ruled Yemen for 32 years, failed to appear as promised on television in the hours after the attack, and his voice sounded noticeably weak in a brief audio statement he made late at night.

Saleh referred to the attack as the "work of an outlaw gang" and renewed his commitment to defeating the Ahmars.

A White House statement prompted by the attack showed how far Saleh has fallen from grace. The statement lumped the assault on the presidential compound in with other "acts of violence today in Yemen," but took advantage of the occasion to again urge Saleh to sign an agreement that would force him from power.

"The United States condemns in the strongest terms the senseless acts of violence today in Yemen, including the attack against the presidential palace compound in Sanaa as well as other attacks in Sanaa and throughout the country," the statement said. "We call on all sides to cease hostilities immediately and to pursue an orderly and peaceful process of transferring political power as called for in the GCC-brokered agreement," referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council, which mediated the accord.

Only 18 months ago, Saleh was the U.S. man in Yemen, considered a close ally in the battle against al Qaida's affiliate here. According to a January 2010 State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks, Saleh openly acknowledged that he was misleading his own parliament about the U.S. role in a bombing campaign against al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in a conversation with U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who was visiting Yemen.

"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said, according to the cable.

In the past five years, the U.S. has poured millions into military aid, largely to train their Yemeni counterparts in counter-terrorism. In fiscal year 2010, the U.S. spent $155 million in military training compared to less than $5 million five years ago.

In February, the administration said it planned to spend $75 million in Yemen to double its counter-terrorism training unit.

The U.S. has about 100 trainers in Yemen and has no plans to pull them out, U.S. military spokesman Marine Col. David Lapan told reporters Friday in Washington. He said there was no evidence that U.S.-trained troops had been used against peaceful demonstrators.

The fighting between Saleh loyalists and the Ahmars began May 23, the day after Saleh last refused to sign the GCC accord. For the most part, the fighting has remained confined to the Hasaba neighborhood in northern Sanaa, which contains Sheikh Ahmar's house and numerous government ministries.

Thursday, pro-government fighters, including foreign-trained Yemeni special forces, managed to regain control of a number government buildings, but the fighting remained fierce on Friday with the sounds of shelling and gunfire reverberating throughout the district.

Clashes between pro government forces and dissident tribesmen were also reported in the rural environs of the capital, and unconfirmed reports said tribesmen loyal to Ahmar were continuing to stream toward Saana to provide reinforcements.

Despite the violence, forces loyal to General Ali Mohsen, a powerful general who declared support for pro democracy protests in March, have stayed out of the fight. Mohsen's forces are deployed around Sanaa University, which like Hasaba lies in the capital's north.

Notably the presidential compound is south of the city center, outside of the area controlled by Mohsen or contested by Ahmar. Lying nearly adjacent to the headquarters of the Yemeni Central Security Forces, the presidential compound is generally considered to be the most secure location in the capital.

Following the attack, government troops reportedly shelled houses belonging to the Ahmar family in the well off southern neighborhood of Hadda.

Many Yemenis doubted the government's official narrative, Saleh of orchestrating the attack or arguing that the violence was the result of an attempted coup.

"We don't believe what the government is saying," said Taha Yahya, a teacher taking part in anti-government demonstrations. "But, of course, we don't know what's going on either."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this report.)

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