Fighting that rocked Sanaa for the past five days spread beyond the capital today as Yemeni tribesmen opposed to the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized a Republican Guard military camp.
The ongoing battles left dozens dead and prompted air strikes by government planes, according to a tribal leader.
At least 109 people have been killed by 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 long-time ruler.
The fighting has hiked fears the country could be thrown into civil war as Saleh clings to power in the face of months of peaceful protests demanding his removal.
The violence poses a major new threat to Saleh because of the enormous strength 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 is strong enough that around half the Sanhan have abandoned the president since the Hashid leadership announced it was joining the opposition weeks ago.
Today’s assault on the base in the el-Fardha Nehem region was the most significant escalation yet outside the capital. Tribal fighters stormed the camp, 50 miles north east of Sanaa, and killed tens of troops – including the base commander – in the fighting, said Sheik Ali Saif, a leader from the Hashid confederation.
After the Hashid fighters captured the camp, government planes bombed them and other forces clashed with them on the ground, he said. At least 12 tribesmen were killed, Mr Saif said.
When two military helicopters landed about two miles from the camp to unload reinforcements, tribal fighters attacked them, capturing the helicopters and a number of troops, and the fighters shot down a third helicopter, Mr Saif said. There was no immediate government comment on the fighting.
Mr Saif said the tribe attacked the base to prevent soldiers there from moving into Sanaa to reinforce government troops there. 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 warned residents in Sanaa neighbourhoods 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.
The head of the Hashid tribe, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, demanded that Saleh step down or else be held accountable for “dragging the country to a civil war”.
The battles broke out on Monday after an attempt by government forces to storm al-Ahmar’s compound in the heart of Sanaa. By Thursday, the clashes had widened to include areas around Sanaa’s airport, and other tribes had joined in alongside al-Ahmar.