Image: A motorcyclist rides through a roadblock in the southern Yemeni city of Taiz
Khaled Abdullah  /  Reuters
A motorcyclist rides through a roadblock set up by anti-government protesters in the southern Yemeni city of Taiz on Wednesday.
By
updated 6/1/2011 5:49:20 PM ET 2011-06-01T21:49:20

Street battles between government forces and armed tribesmen killed dozens of people and spread to new areas of Yemen's capital on Wednesday, forcing residents to cower in basements or brave gunfire to fetch bread and water.

Nearly four months of mass protests calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster have exacerbated already dire poverty, shuttering businesses and forcing up prices of essential goods. It's a trend that does not bode well for long-term stability in this gun-ridden corner of the Arabian Peninsula, home to an active al-Qaida branch and other armed Islamist groups.

Yemen's mainly peaceful protests gave way to fighting last week between Saleh's security forces and fighters loyal to the head of Yemen's most powerful tribal coalition, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar. At least 41 people were killed Wednesday as clashes spread to new quarters of the city.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saleh's refusal to step down was prolonging the crisis.

"We cannot expect this conflict to end unless President Saleh and his government move out of the way to permit the opposition and civil society to begin a transition to political and economic reform," she told reporters in Washington.

President Barack Obama's Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week for talks on Yemen.

'We are suffering'
Fighting in the capital raged from early morning though midday, sending the crackle of gunfire and the booms of artillery strikes across the city. The clashes spread Wednesday from the Hassaba neighborhood where tribesmen have seized more than a dozen government buildings, to new areas.

The clashes forced Talal Hazza to crowd into a neighbor's basement with 20 others, half of them children.

"We are suffering and living through trying days," Hazza told The Associated Press. "It wears you out because the shells fall on us like rain, especially at night."

The explosions terrify the children, and only the men go out for food, Hazza said. They have to venture out daily because the area has had no electricity for two days, meaning there is no way refrigerate food.

"We can hear explosions outside, but we are afraid to go up and look because they are very close," he said.

Tribal fighters seized the prosecutor general's office in the city's northwest. They were accompanied by two vehicles from the 1st Armored Division, whose powerful commander abandoned Saleh two months ago. So far, however, his troops have not participated in the street battles.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that tribesmen also took over a five-story building in the city's southern Hadda neighborhood, a stronghold of Saleh supporters.

Yemen's official news agency SABA called the tribal fighters "armed gangs" and accused them of looting supplies, furniture and documents from government buildings.

Witnesses said units of the elite Presidential Guard, commanded by one of Saleh's sons, shelled the headquarters of an army brigade that guards government institutions, sending up columns of smoke and fire. Army officers who have joined the opposition said they believed the move was a pre-emptive strike against a commander the government feared would join the movement to oust Saleh.

Fighting diminished in the afternoon, when Yemenis routinely gather to chew qat, a mildly addictive stimulant. But artillery strikes resumed at dusk, forcing residents back to their basements.

"We feel besieged in our neighborhood and can't leave our house because of the clashes and the random shelling," said resident Abdu Salem. A shell landed near his house, spraying his neighbor's leg with shrapnel, Salem said, but the clashes prevented an ambulance from coming for four hours.

Saleh has met the protests with promised reforms and brutal crackdowns, sometimes sending tanks or snipers to clear public squares where the protesters camp out. The crackdowns have turned the U.S. away from Saleh, once considered a key ally against al-Qaida.

'Game over'
As the uprising has dragged on, prices for food, petrol and cooking gas have skyrocketed, cutting into family budgets in a country where the United Nations says 31 percent of people are underfed.

Experts say growing poverty and a depleted government budget heighten the chances of longtime instability in a nation that is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been linked to attempted attacks on U.S. soil, including the failed Christmas Day attack in 2009.

"We're already talking about the poorest country in the Arab world, and the average Yemeni has the least room to absorb this," said Christopher Bouceck of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The longer this goes on, the worse it gets."

Shopkeeper Najib al-Habaishi said his foodstuffs are scarce and his prices high because distributors balk at delivering to the capital.

Running water has cut out in much of the capital, meaning residents buy supplies from tanker trucks. But the price of a fill up has quadrupled during the uprising, forcing many to limit bathing and laundry to once a week.

The price of cooking gas, too, has increased steeply, meaning some many now light wood fires on their roofs to cook.

Rising gas prices have caused shortages, forcing people to wait for hours in long lines at gas stations. Once at the pump, they face quotas that limit them to about a third of a tank.

Electricity comes and goes, and has been cut in the Hassaba neighborhood for nearly three days.

While protests, defections and international diplomacy have not forced Saleh from power, economic pressures could prove the final blow, said April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group think tank. Saleh has tapped state coffers to pay his forces, fund boisterous pro-government rallies and buy support from tribes, she said. He can't keep that up forever.

"If Saleh is unable to pay military and security salaries and to maintain critical patronage networks within the tribes, it will certainly be game over," she said.

___

Hubbard reported from Cairo. Matthew Lee contributed reporting from Washington.

 

Video: Yemen faces 'all-out civil war' (on this page) Story: Islamists ambush army, gunfights resume in Yemen Video: Yemen fighting has wider implications (on this page)

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Yemen fighting has wider implications

Photos: Yemen in the spotlight

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  1. Yemen’s profile rose dramatically following a cargo bomb plot on two planes bound for the United States on October 29, 2010. The parcels were intercepted by Dubai and Britain, and several days later the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility. The Muslim nation has increasingly gained a reputation as a safe haven for Islamic extremists. Here, a Muezzin, who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day, looks out from the Jalalya mosque in Ibb. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A weapons seller sits in his improvised shop at a truck stop in Al Adwass, offering both second-hand and new Kalashnikov assault rifles. Yemen has approximately 60 million weapons in circulation. There were no regulations in place for arms in the country until 2002 for the capital, San’a, and 2008 for the rest of the country. Yemen is struggling to implement any new arms regulations as it tries to end a civil war in the north that has raged on and off since 2004, as well as a separatist rebellion in the south. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A military checkpoint at an entry to San’a. Yemen has beefed up security and increased the number of checkpoints and random searches in an effort to crack down on Islamic militants. In December 2009, Yemen’s AQAP claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner attack, raising alarms in the international community. Yemen declared open war on al-Qaida in January 2010. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An intelligence officer checks passengers in a passing car against the pictures of two wanted al-Qaida operatives, Abdallah Salem Dahim Al Elyani Al Kahtani (l) and Abdallah Abul Karim Ibrahim Al Saloum (r). AQAP also claimed responsibility for the September 2010 crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in which two crew members died, but the U.A.E. said there was no evidence of an explosive device aboard the jet. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Qat market in the Old City in the capital, San’a. The leafy narcotic plant is a mild stimulant and is grown throughout the country. It is a widely practiced tradition to chew the leaves in the afternoon, though the convention hampers productivity in an already suffering economy.

    Photojournalist's view: Yemen is a complicated puzzle (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Yemen began a trial in absentia of U.S.-born Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki on November 4, 2010. Awlaki has ties to AQAP and is reportedly in hiding in Yemen. He released a video on November 8, 2010, calling on Muslims to kill Americans and members of any collaborating Arab governments. Here, a woman wearing a veil with the traditional pattern of San’a walks down a street in the Old City. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Followers of Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani wait for him to speak in the Mashaad mosque in San’a. Yemen's council of clerics has called for jihad, or holy war, in the event of a foreign military intervention amid speculation the United States might pursue al-Qaida extremists there. The clerics, including the radical Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, who is labeled by the U.S. as a "global terrorist", also voiced "rejection to any security or military agreement or cooperation [between Yemen and] any foreign party if it violates Islamic Sharia [law]." (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Extremists destroyed the house of Abdulmalik al-Mansour in the al-Hasaba neighborhood in the capital on April 16, 2009. Al-Mansour was accused of tearing up and stepping on a Quran in a mosque a few months after the establishment of the “Vice and Virtue Committee.” The attackers justified their actions by saying they were protecting the holy book of Islam. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Central Security Service members train in the outskirts of San’a. CSS forces are at the helm of the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen, and their commander, Yahya Saleh, is the nephew of Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh. This particular unit was involved in the last two operations against al-Qaida in Al Ahrb, north of San’a. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President Ali Abdallah Saleh won the country’s first-ever presidential election in 1999 by a landslide, with 96 percent of the vote. The main opposition party, however, was not allowed to put forward a candidate. Here, portraits of leaders in the Middle East hang on the walls of a barber shop in San’a’s Old City. From left to right: Sheikh Yassin, founder of the Palestinian group Hamas; Khaled Mechaal, Hamas’ leader in exile in Syria; Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq; Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks to one of San’a’s 30 wells to look for drinking water. In the background, construction continues on a mosque that President Saleh is building as a legacy to his presidency. The country’s water resources are drying up rapidly – the water crisis is deemed among the worst in the world and is aggravated by excessive irrigation by farmers growing Qat. A few years ago, water could be found at a depth of 70-100 meters; now it is necessary to dig 450 meters into the ground to find the precious resource. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Men sit idle in the Old City of San’a near Bab Al Yemen, waiting for work. Unemployment is on the rise and there are fears it could drive more people into religious extremism. The cash-strapped government is almost powerless to meet the needs of an expanding population and if it cannot pay public sector wages, Yemen is at risk of descending into chaos. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. An armed tribesman in the restive province of Marib, east of San’a. The city of Marib has been a hotbed for extremists and insurgents returning from jihad missions overseas. In 2002, a U.S. predator drone killed several al-Qaida operatives here. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women in the back of a pick-up truck return from working in fields along the coastal plain of Tihama on the Red Sea. Almost a third of Yemen’s workforce is out of a job and more than 40 percent of the country’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day. For women, a lack of education lessens the already low chances of working for a living. The female literacy rate is 35 percent compared to 73 percent for men, according to World Bank figures from 2005. Also, there is no law in Yemen that states how old a woman must be to get married, which has led to child marriages and complications in childbirth for young women who have barely reached puberty when they become pregnant. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lack of electricity is widespread and regular power outages slow down businesses and development in Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Here, a man holds a block of ice in the desert area of the coastal Tihama plain. Without electricity, local populations have maintained age-old methods of preserving food. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Yemeni men listen to music while chewing Qat and looking out at the view of the Tihama coastal plain from a mountain ledge near Al Mahweet. Yemen is near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index, ranking 154 out of 180 countries last year. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Most of what used to be North Yemen is located in the only mountain range in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hijaz Mountains. North and South Yemen formally united in 1990 but some in the south, home to most of the country’s oil facilities, complain that the historically more wealthy northerners used unification as an excuse to seize resources in the south. Southerners say the government deprives them of jobs and many believe they were better off before unification, when South Yemen was part of the socialist bloc and welfare state established with Soviet aid. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Men wearing traditional dress stand on a path through cactus trees. Most of the villages in the countryside are made of local stone and surrounded by natural vegetation, making it difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding wilderness. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The House of the Rock, or Dar al-Hajar, in Wadi Dhar was the winter residence of Imam Yahya, who ruled Yemen from 1918 until 1948. The palace was built atop a massive rock in the 1930s and has become a cultural symbol of Yemen. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Fishermen walk along a beach in Bir Ali, a village on the Arabian Sea coast in the Shbwa province. Most of the fish is exported to Japan, but it is a vital resource for people living along the Arabian Sea coast. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
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