Sana, Yemen – Heavy shelling north of Yemen’s capital threatened to close the main international airport Thursday as government troops and opposition tribesmen appeared to escalate bloody street battles that have pushed the country to the edge of civil war.
The airport, which lies roughly six miles north of the city, was open on Thursday and flights operated normally, the airport director, Naji Quddam, said in a statement, denying earlier news reports that it had closed.
But the main road to the airport from Sana remained dangerous to navigate because of government checkpoints, sporadic shelling and heavy fighting in the north of the city.
There, large numbers of tribal fighters surging south toward the capital, Sana, squared off against Yemeni troops at an important checkpoint in fierce fighting overnight and on Thursday. The northern checkpoint is a major barrier between the capital and Amran Province, a stronghold of the tribesmen loyal to the Ahmar family who have been battling the government for 10 days. Government troops have attempted to seal off the city to prevent rural tribesmen from joining the fight there.
On Wednesday afternoon, tanks and armored vehicles could be seen rolling into Sana from the south. The streets of city were largely empty, as residents fled for the safety of surrounding villages. Exploding artillery shells and sporadic machine-gun fire could be heard across the city.
Despite his repeated public offers to step aside to ease the crisis in the country, Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, appeared to be gearing up for a major assault on the Ahmar family, his tribal rivals and political opponents.
The violence here has transformed a largely peaceful uprising into a tribal conflict with no clear end in sight. The United States and Yemen’s Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia, which have tried and failed to mediate a peaceful solution to the country’s political crisis, are reduced to sitting on the sidelines and pleading for restraint.
The bloodshed also threatens to unleash a humanitarian catastrophe, as Yemen, already the poorest country in the Arab world, runs desperately low on gasoline, cooking oil and other basic supplies. It also raises fears that Islamic militants who use Yemen as a base will have even freer rein to operate in the country.
The rising chaos has become a major concern for the White House, which announced Wednesday that John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, would be traveling to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week to discuss “the deteriorating situation in Yemen.”
“This is the worst fighting we have seen since 1994,” when Yemen fought a two-month civil war, said one Yemeni official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol. “And it’s the worst fighting in Sana since the civil war of the 1960s.” Some estimates of the death toll in fighting late Tuesday and early Wednesday ranged as high as 41 on both sides. All told, at least 120 people have been killed since the violence began early last week. A brief cease-fire struck over the weekend collapsed on Tuesday, with each side blaming the other.
In recent days, the government’s tenuous hold has slipped further outside the capital, as tribal fighters and Islamist militants seized a major coastal town in the south, and tribesmen took over critical checkpoints east of Sana. The city of Taiz, south of the capital, remained in a state of lockdown, days after government forces and plainclothes gunmen opened fire on a vast crowd of peaceful protesters who had been holding a sit-in for months. Dozens of people were killed, according to witnesses and human rights groups, and the episode provoked condemnations from the United States and other countries.
In the capital, government security forces have tried in recent days to disrupt a similar peaceful sit-in by protesters that has lasted for months. But Maj. Gen. Ali Moshin al-Ahmar’s troops have protected them. Most of the protesters in Sana and in cities across Yemen have held fast to their belief in nonviolent resistance, but some have begun to call for war against Mr. Saleh, especially after the massacre in Taiz.
“For me and others like me here in the square, we are convinced that peaceful means would not work, since they did not work over these last four months,” said Ahmed Obadi, a young protester and teacher.
The forces arrayed against the government have diverse and sometimes conflicting agendas, but the rising chaos appears to have emboldened them all, including the Yemen-based group that calls itself Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has become a major concern for the United States.
In the northern province of Jawf, a battle broke out Wednesday between opposition tribesmen and the rebels who now control much of northern Yemen, known as Houthis after the family of their leader. At least five tribesmen were killed, said Abdullah al-Jamili, a senior tribal figure in the area.
The latest round of fighting in Sana broke out on May 23, a day after Mr. Saleh refused for a third time to sign an agreement for him to leave power in exchange for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family, who hold key positions in Yemen’s intelligence and security services. The agreement was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-nation body of Yemen’s Arab neighbors, and the United States had lobbied hard for Mr. Saleh to sign it, to no avail.
So far, the fighting in the capital has been mostly limited to the Hasaba district, the site of the Ahmar family compound and a cluster of adjacent government buildings. General Ahmar, who defected to the opposition in March but is not related to the other Ahmars, has so far kept his forces on the sidelines, leaving open the question of whether the fighting will spread into a much deadlier and broader conflict.
But as Mr. Saleh moved more tanks and heavy weapons into the capital, some Yemenis warned that Mr. Saleh could be planning an effort to crush the Ahmars and consolidate control. That strategy would carry enormous risks in Yemen, where tribal leaders outside the capital have repeatedly threatened to join the battle and avenge dead relatives.
“In effect, Saleh is dragging the country into civil war,” said Abdulghani al-Eryani, a political analyst in Sana. “I think he wants to try to defeat the Ahmar forces and bring them back into the fold. But any miscalculation could turn this into open war.”
Already on Wednesday there were signs that the fighting was spreading, with reports of a mortar attack on General Ahmar’s military base, and witnesses saying that his troops were assisting opposition tribesmen. And the fighting in Sana has begun to spread beyond the northern Hasaba district; on Wednesday, opposition tribesmen seized the office of the city’s public prosecutor in the city’s northwest section, witnesses said.
Many Yemenis were girding themselves for more bloodshed. “People think that a civil war has started so they are fleeing from Sana,” said Gamila al-Kamaly, a mother of six who has so far refused to leave. “There are missiles flying around in Hasaba. So this has made people realize that the regime has to go. He is trying to make us feel like we are Gaza.”
Nasser Arrabyee reported from Sana, and Robert F. Worth from Washington. J. David Goodman contributed reporting from New York, Laura Kasinof from Washington, and Khaled Hammadi from Sana.