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Violence between anti-government tribes and forces loyal to the president threatens to derail protest movement.
SANAA, Yemen — As fighting rages for a fourth day between anti-government tribesmen and forces loyal to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, thousands of peaceful demonstrators camped out in front of Sanaa University, now sleeping amid the light of explosions and the crack of gunfire, are contemplating their next move.
The usual jovial atmosphere at the protest camp has been reduced to a nervous hum, hushed conversations punctuated by artillery and AK-47 fire.
Instead of gathering in front of the stage that anchors the camp, listening to music, dancing and shouting anti-government slogans, the thousands of demonstrators are now huddled in their tents, in front of television screens, following coverage of the conflict they fear will derail their peaceful movement.
“Tomorrow we will hold Friday’s prayers just as we have done every Friday for three months,” said protest leader Adel Al-Surabi. “This Friday will be called ‘The Friday of the Peaceful Revolution.’ We want everyone to know that we intend to remain peaceful.”
Fighting first erupted on Sunday after Saleh refused for the third time to sign an internationally brokered deal that offered him immunity to step down. After refusing to sign, Saleh warned that the country was nearing civil war.
The fighting broke out when loyalist security forces attacked the home of one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal sheikhs, Sadeq Al-Ahmar, who is part of an alliance of tribes known as the Hashid confederation. The Hashid confederation pledged its support for the protest movement in March.
Well armed, members of the powerful Hashid confederation fought back and, residents said, began to pour into the city from their northern stronghold of Ammran. Four days later dozens have been killed and Sanaa, the country’s capital, remains on lockdown.
Sanaa’s usual gridlock traffic has been reduced to a free flowing stream of trucks piled high with luggage as families flee the city, seeking refuge in their ancestral villages in the rugged and mountainous Yemeni countryside.
The fighting so far has been between the tribal alliance and the half of the military that is still loyal to Saleh. The other half of the military defected under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar in March following the violent crackdown by Saleh’s security forces. Ali Muhsin pledged to use his ranks to protect the protesters and has so far not entered the conflict between the Hashid and loyalist forces.
While most protesters remain in the square, intent on keeping the movement to oust Saleh peaceful, the tribesmen who had joined them in March are now leaving, bound by a sense of duty, to join their brothers-in-arms in the conflict taking place just a few miles away.
“Some tribesmen have left to join the fight. However, the students will remain here until the regime is brought down,” said protester Abdul Wahab al-Qumadi from his tent.
The increased violence has instilled a heightened since of vigilance among protest organizers. While an escalation of the peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience that had been taking place since the middle of February was planned for this week, organizers said they had now decided to scale back.
“There are no new marches planned. Saleh wants a civil war and we will not oblige him,” Al-Surabi said.
The atmosphere at the protest camp, and around the city, was tense on Thursday.
The makeshift soccer fields that dot the city, drawn on asphalt with sidewalk chalk, were abandoned and angry fathers called their children, rushing out of their homes with soccer balls in hand, back inside.
“What’s wrong with you? Are you deaf? Get back inside now,” screamed one local resident as his son trudged, frowning, back into his home, artillery shells booming in the distance as ominous, dark rain clouds began to cover the city.
Despite the intensity of the fighting, many of the students and other protesters said they were determined to remain.
“We aren’t scared. We’re going to stay here until the fall of the regime, God willing,” said Imad Al-Hindi, 20, a former soldier in Yemen’s General Security force.
Imad’s friends played chess nervously in their tent, the sound of the clicking wooden pieces mixing with distant gunfire.
“We are not part of Hashid and we don’t support their war. We will stay peaceful, this is our pledge,” he added.