Yemen’s embattled president vowed he would not step down or allow his impoverished nation to become a “failed state” even as urban combat between government troops and armed tribesmen engulfed parts of the capital.
Both sides raised the spectre of civil war as the three-day death toll rose to at least 69. The latest violence comes just days after a failed Arab mediation effort to end the three-month uprising and ease Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.
After nightfall, residents reported heavy shelling that appeared to come from outside the city, targeting residential areas. The crackle of heavy gunfire could be heard in different parts of the city.
In the Arhab region about 20 miles north west of Sanaa, a brigade of Saleh’s presidential guard clashed with local tribesmen – showing that the fighting was spreading outside the capital. Six government soldiers were killed and 21 injured in that fight, an army official said. It was unclear if any tribesmen were killed.
So far, 20 government troops, and 46 fighters from the Hashid, the tribe of Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar and Yemen’s largest tribe, have been killed – bringing the death toll since Monday to at least 69. Scores more were injured.
Mr Saleh’s statement – read by spokesman Ahmed al-Soufi in a meeting with tribal allies – ruled out a voluntary departure and attacked US-backed efforts to negotiate his exit after 32 years of authoritarian rule.
“I will not leave power and I will not leave Yemen,” the statement said. “I don’t take orders from outside.”
Mr Saleh also threatened that his ousting could turn Yemen into a haven for al-Qaida – directly touching on US fears that chaos in Yemen could open room for more terrorist footholds. The Yemeni branch of al Qaida is linked to the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an airline over Detroit and explosives found in parcels intercepted last year in Dubai and Britain.
“Yemen will not be a failed state. It will not turn to al Qaida refuge,” the statement said. Mr Saleh also said he would work to prevent the recent violence from “dragging the country into a civil war.”
US president Barack Obama has called on Mr Saleh to transfer power, a change from an administration that once considered the Yemeni ruler a necessary ally against terrorism.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate end to the fighting, expressing concern that clashes “might further destabilise the situation”.
The clashes broke out on Monday after Mr Saleh’s troops tried to storm the compound of Mr al-Ahmar. Hundreds of tribal fighters rushed to the capital’s northern Hassaba neighbourhood, where clashes erupted with government forces.
Government troops shelled the neighbourhood around Mr al-Ahmar’s house yesterday while gunmen in civilian clothes exchanged gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades with tribal fighters.
The battles have ravaged the area, home to government offices and the headquarters of Mr Saleh’s ruling party. The tribal fighters have occupied 16 ministries and other government institutions, while Mr Saleh’s forces have used the interior ministry as their front-line base.
Some military units also appear to have broken ranks and joined the opposition. One breakaway unit trucked in stones to block streets in attempts to prevent government troops from moving in heavy weapons. Pro-Saleh forces, meanwhile, set up checkpoints in other areas, witnesses said.
The fighting sent dozens of families fleeing the area and seeking refuge outside the capital.
Eyewitnesses said that all roads entering Sanaa were blocked by pro-government Republican Guards, which are under the command of Mr Saleh’s son, leaving hundreds of Yemenis trying to enter the capital stranded and forced to spend the night in their cars.
The fighting also appeared to be widening into nearby neighbourhoods. Volleys of mortars hit an army unit that had defected to the opposition side in the district of al-Nahda, killing three and injuring 10 others, according to a military official.