Yemen on the brink of civil war

A Yemeni army tank secures an area near a pro-regime rally in support of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on May 20, 2011.</p>

A Yemeni army tank secures an area near a pro-regime rally in support of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on May 20, 2011.

SANAA, Yemen — More than ever, Yemen looks headed for civil war.

Clashes erupted between anti-government tribesmen and loyalist military forces here on Monday, a day after Yemen’s embattled president backed out of a deal to transfer power.

In a speech following his refusal to sign the agreement, President Ali Abdullah Saleh warned the opposition that they are forcing Yemen into a bloody civil war.

The fighting broke out when loyalist security forces approached the home of one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal sheikhs, Sadeq Al-Ahmar, shortly following noon prayers, eyewitnesses said.

As gunfire began to ring out, tribal forces moved toward government buildings.

“They were taking positions on the roof of a school overlooking the Ministry of Interior,” said Yasser Mohammed Abdullah, 25, as gunfire erupted just south of his neighborhood.

Residents ran screaming through the streets to warn bystanders and drivers not to use certain roads that were open to gunfire.

One storeowner who worked next to the Al-Ahmar home said that civil war was only a matter of time.

"We expected this. Saleh threatened us with a civil war and the Al-Ahmar family is his biggest enemy,” he said.

As fighting raged on throughout the day, anti-government tribesmen surrounded the state news agency, known as Saba, and were attempting to take it.

“Seven people have been filled so far. We’re totally surrounded,” one employee said.

One Saba news journalist, Farouk Al-Kamali, was shot in the leg by a mounted heavy machine gun, according to the manager.

Local press reported that the anti-government tribesmen seized the Ministry of Trade and Industry and were moving toward the Ministry of Interior.

“They are shooting at the Ministry of Interior and clearing people out of their homes and taking cover in those houses,” said one eyewitness.

“The Yemenia Airways building near the ministry has been burned to the ground,” he added.

The Yemeni government, outraged with the Al-Ahmar family, condemned that attacks as random acts of violence carried out by an armed mob.

"Reinforcements are being sent to the area to repel the mob," said one Yemeni government official.

Al-Arabiya news agency reported that members of the Hashid tribe, the tribe of the Al-Ahmar family, are moving south from the stronghold in Ammran towardthe capital. Sadeq and Hamid Al-Ahmar, who are brothers, had expressed their support for the anti-government protest movement weeks ago.

The Hashid Confederation is one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal groupings. The confederation itself is fractured — however the Al-Ahmar family has considerable influence over the various tribes in the confederation.

Defected Gen. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar (no relation to the Al-Ahmar family) has yet to bring his rebel First Armored Brigade into the fight. After his defection, the general stated that his troops would only be used to protect the Change Square protest camp in Sanaa.

Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, said that Monday’s clashes could push Yemen’s conflict from peaceful protest movement to civil war.

“Today's fighting between soldiers loyal to President Saleh and tribesmen loyal to Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar is a dangerous escalation that threatens to tip Yemen's precarious stalemate towards war,“ said Johnsen.