President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded when rebellious tribesmen struck his palace with rockets, targeting him for the first time in a dramatic escalation of fighting that has turned parts of the Yemeni capital into a battleground and pushed the country toward civil war.
One of the rockets yesterday smashed into a mosque on the palace grounds where the president was praying along with his top leadership. It was a stunning hit on the regime’s most senior figures: among the nine wounded were the prime minister, Saleh’s powerful top security adviser and the two heads of parliament, as well as the cleric leading prayers. Seven guards were killed.
Four of the top leadership injured in the rocket attack on the presidential palace are in Saudi Arabia for treatment, it was reported today.
The prime minister, the president’s top security adviser, and the two heads of parliament are being treated in the neighbouring kingdom for their injuries.
Officials said Saleh had only slight injuries – Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi spoke only of “scratches to his face”.
But there were indications the injuries may have been more severe. Saleh, in his late 60s, was taken to a Defense Ministry hospital, while officials promised repeatedly that he would soon appear in public. But by late last night, state TV had aired only an audio message from the president, with an old still photo.
“If you are well, I am well,” Saleh said in the brief message, addressing Yemenis. He spoke in a laboured voice, his breathing at times heavy. He blamed the rocket attack on “this armed gang of outlaws,” referring to the tribal fighters, and called on “all sons of the military around the country to confront” them.
The bold assault directly on the president is likely to heighten what has been an increasingly brutal fight between Saleh’s forces and the heavily armed tribesmen loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar.
Since violence erupted on May 23, Sanaa residents have been hiding in basements as the two sides fight over control of government ministries.
The bloodshed comes as nearly four months of protests and international diplomacy have failed to oust Yemen’s leader of 33 years.
After the rocket attack, government forces intensified shelling on Sanaa’s Hassaba district, the epicentre of the fighting where al-Ahmar’s residential compound is located.
The White House called on all sides to stop the fighting, which has killed more than 160 people.
Washington fears that the chaos will undermine the Yemen government’s US-backed campaign against al-Qaida’s branch in the country, which has attempted a number of attacks against the United States.
Saleh has been a crucial US ally in the anti-terror fight, but Washington is now trying to negotiate a stable exit for him.
At least three rockets hit in and around Saleh’s palace compound, one of them hitting the front of the mosque, where he and his officials were lined up in prayer, according to a presidential statement.
The most severe injuries were to Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi, who is also the president’s top security adviser and who remained unconscious from his wounds, the official said.
The prime minister and head of the upper house of parliament – both suffered heavy burns and wounds to the back.