Sana, Yemen – Yemen’s embattled leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was lightly injured Friday in an opposition mortar attack on the presidential palace that killed three guards and a cleric, his spokesman said. The attack inched the country ever closer to civil war after months of political turmoil.
The spokesman, Abdel al-Jandi, said that Mr. Saleh was in a mosque located within the palace compound when it was shaken by explosions as Friday prayers were beginning just after noon.
Mr. Saleh had “scratches” on his face from the attack, Mr. Jandi said, which forced him to postpone a planned televised news conference as earlier rumors swirled that the president had been killed. He did not say when Mr. Saleh would speak.
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At least six senior officials were injured in the attack, including the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, and four other people died, including three bodyguards and the imam of the mosque, according to a statement from the president’s office. The statement said the “treacherous attack” hit the front of the mosque.
The attack came during a large rally of Mr. Saleh’s supporters near the palace, and it set off intense fighting in the south of Sana, the capital. That part of the city had largely been spared during nearly two weeks of pitched street fighting between government forces and opposition tribesmen in and around the capital.
It was unclear which opposition figure or figures may have been behind the mortar attack on the palace. The government nonetheless immediately shelled the home of Hamid al-Ahmar, one of Mr. Saleh’s main tribal rivals and an opposition leader. A spokesman for Mr. Ahmar’s brother, Sadiq, denied that his family’s forces were behind the mortar attack, and claimed that the government had staged the attack to justify more violence against tribesmen.
Tribesmen loyal to the Ahmar family have been battling government forces in the streets on Sana for more than 10 days.
Mr. Saleh has retained power in Yemen for 33 years, skillfully negotiating the country’s treacherous tribal politics. But since street protesters in Tunisia and Egypt toppled the long-time autocrats in those countries and shook the region’s political order, Mr. Saleh has faced increasingly loud calls to step down.
The attempts to dislodge him began as peaceful protests in February and led to a government crackdown that killed more than 100 people throughout the country. Late last month, after Mr. Saleh reneged for the third time on promises to leave office, tribesmen loyal to Mr. Ahmar began battling government forces.
The United States had counted on Mr. Saleh to aid its fight against terrorism, but recently Washington has quietly pushed him to cede power. American officials worry that the continuing violence in Yemen will allow the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to further solidify its base there.
Smoke from the explosions on Friday rose over the capital, and could be seen from the site of the main antigovernment protest, about three miles to the north. At the rival pro-government rally, held in Sabeen Square in front of the palace, frightened government supporters could be seen fleeing from the violence in images shown on state television.
Until Friday, most of the fighting in Sana was centered in the Hasaba neighborhood in the north, and was focused on the home of Sadiq al-Ahmar. Residents in the south nervously watched the escalating violence from their rooftops and could hear machine guns crackling continually.
The presidential palace on Sabeen Square is near Hadda, a wealthy neighborhood of walled mansions, Western restaurants and diplomatic missions. Many government officials and allies of Mr. Saleh live in the area, as do some of his fiercest opponents, including Maj. Gen. Ali Moshin al-Ahmar, who defected to the opposition in March (and is no relation to Sadiq or Hamid al-Ahmar).
Artillery shells fired by the government Friday landed on General Ahmar’s home, which is near that of Hamid al-Ahmar, though it was unclear whether the general’s home was a target. General Ahmar has so far kept his powerful contingent of troops on the sidelines of battles between the Ahmar family and the government.
The mortar attack on the president shocked many Yemenis. Streaming video in the early afternoon showed protesters in a central square celebrating the attack on the presidential palace, while in the central city of Taiz, security forces appeared to have been thrust into a state of uncertainty, witnesses in the city said.
After a violent push to drive thousands of antigovernment demonstrators from a central square in Taiz last week, in which at least 20 were killed, security forces appeared to pull back Friday afternoon, and did not fire their weapons as hundreds of protesters reoccupied the square. Once back in the square, protesters burnt tires and began building barricades as security forces watched nearby, witnesses said.
Nasser Arrabyee reported from Sana, and J. David Goodman from New York. Laura Kasinof contributed reporting from Hagerstown, Md.