Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Yemen Battles Erupt After Leader Refuses to Quit

Yemen battles erupt after leader refuses to quit

Ahmed Al-Haj, Associated Press
Monday, May 23, 2011
(05-23) 04:00 PDT

Sanaa, Yemen -- Security forces and opposition tribal fighters battled with automatic weapons, mortars and tanks in the Yemeni capital Monday, blasting buildings and setting government offices on fire in violence that hiked fears of an armed confrontation after the collapse of efforts to negotiate a peaceful exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The street fighting, in which six people were killed and nearly 40 wounded, was the heaviest clash between the pro- and anti-Saleh camps since hundreds of thousands of Yemenis began taking to the streets three months ago in protests demanding the ouster of the president after 32 years in power.

It erupted amid increased tensions after Saleh refused at the last minute Sunday to sign a U.S.-backed agreement, mediated by Yemen's powerful gulf Arab neighbors, under which he would step down in 30 days. Saleh had promised to sign the deal, but instead, his regime sent mobs of armed supporters into the street Sunday, protesting at embassies, in an orchestrated campaign to demand he stay in power.

The United States expressed growing frustration with Saleh, an ally that Washington has relied on to fight al Qaeda's branch in the impoverished nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Fearing the turmoil is disrupting the campaign against the terror group, Washington has been trying to manage a transition that will keep some measure of stability.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Obama administration is "deeply disappointed" by Saleh's refusal to sign the accord, saying the Yemeni leader "is turning his back on his commitments and disregarding the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people."

So far both sides in Yemen's turmoil have tried to avoid a direct armed confrontation. The protesters are backed by heavily armed tribes and by army units that defected to the opposition, while Saleh has been able to cling to power by retaining the loyalty of the country's best trained and equipped military and security forces, which are headed by his relatives. His security forces have cracked down on protesters - killing at least 150 over the past three months - but the two sides' armed factions have generally eyed each other warily around the capital without major clashes.

But Monday's fighting underlined how explosive the tensions could be.

Fighting raged for more than six hours, until the U.S. ambassador mediated a cease-fire.


This article appeared on page A - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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