Image: Yemen TV shows a still portrait of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh
-  /  AFP - Getty Images
A frame grab taken from Yemen TV shows a portrait of President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a broadcast of his audio message to the nation on Friday. The president said he was well after being lightly wounded when the presidential palace was shelled earlier. Arabic writing at the bottom of the screen reads "A message from his excellency the president about the attack on the Nahdain mosque."
msnbc.com news services
updated 6/3/2011 5:51:55 PM ET 2011-06-03T21:51:55

President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded when rebellious tribesmen struck his palace with rockets Friday, targeting him for the first time in a dramatic escalation of fighting that has turned parts of the capital into a battleground and pushed Yemen toward civil war.

One of the rockets smashed into a mosque on the palace grounds where the president was praying along with his top leadership. It was a stunning hit on the regime's most senior figures: Among the nine wounded were the prime minister, Saleh's powerful top security adviser and the two heads of parliament, as well as the cleric leading prayers. Seven guards were killed.

Officials said Saleh had only slight injuries — Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi spoke only of "scratches to his face." But there were indications the injuries may have been more severe. Saleh, in his late 60s, was taken to a Defense Ministry hospital, while officials promised repeatedly that he would soon appear in public. But by late Friday, state TV had aired only an audio message from the president, with an old still photo.

"If you are well, I am well," Saleh said in the brief message, addressing Yemenis. He spoke in a labored voice, his breathing at times heavy. He blamed the rocket attack on "this armed gang of outlaws," referring to the tribal fighters, and called on "all sons of the military around the country to confront" them.

"I salute our armed forces and the security forces for standing up firmly to confront this challenge by an outlaw gang that has nothing to do with the so-called youth revolution," he said.

Slideshow: Political unrest in Yemen (on this page)

The bold assault directly on the president is likely to heighten what has been an increasingly brutal fight between Saleh's forces and the heavily armed tribesmen loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar. Since violence erupted May 23, Sanaa residents have been hiding in basements as the two sides fight over control of government ministries and duke it out with artillery and gunbattles, shaking neighborhoods and sending palls of smoke over the city.

More than 370 people have been killed, at least 155 of them in the last 10 days, since a popular uprising began in January against Saleh's long rule.

The bloodshed comes as nearly four months of protests and international diplomacy have failed to oust Yemen's leader of 33 years.

After the rocket attack, government forces intensified shelling on Sanaa's Hassaba district, the epicenter of the fighting where al-Ahmar's residential compound is located. Many of the compound's buildings and surrounding houses have already been heavily damaged by days of bombardment.

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The White House called on all sides to stop the fighting, which has killed more than 160 people.
"Violence cannot resolve the issues that confront Yemen, and today's events cannot be a justification for a new round of fighting," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

President Barack Obama's Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, discussed the crisis in Yemen with officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during a three-day visit to the Gulf that ended Friday, vowing to work with Yemen's powerful neighbors to stop the violence.

Image: Yemen's President Saleh during a rally in April
Khaled Abdullah  /  Reuters, file
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh is seen during a rally on April 1.

Washington fears that the chaos will undermine the Yemen government's U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida's branch in the country, which has attempted a number of attacks against the United States. Saleh has been a crucial U.S. ally in the anti-terror fight, but Washington is now trying to negotiate a stable exit for him.

Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters have been trying unsuccessfully since February to oust Saleh with a wave of peaceful protests that have brought out hundreds of thousands daily in Sanaa and other cities.

Now the crisis has transformed into a power struggle between two of Yemen's most powerful families — Saleh's, which dominates the security forces, and the al-Ahmar clan, which leads Yemen's strongest tribal confederation, known as the Hashid. The confederation is grouped around 10 tribes across the north.

Al-Ahmar announced the Hashid's support for the protest movement in March, and his fighters adhered to the movement's nonviolence policy. But last week, Saleh's forces moved against al-Ahmar's fortress-like residence in Sanaa, and the tribe's fighters rose up in fury.

Video: Attack on president puts Yemen step closer to civil war (on this page)

Friday's attack was the first time the tribesmen have directly targeted the president. At least three rockets hit in and around Saleh's palace compound in Friday's strike, one of them hitting the front of the mosque, where he and his officials were lined up in prayer, according to a presidential statement. Seven members of Saleh's personal guard were killed.

At least nine others were wounded, a government official said. They included the prime minister, two deputy prime ministers, the heads of the upper and lower houses of parliament, the governor of Sanaa, the head of the ruling party bloc in parliament and Saleh's secretary, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

The most severe injuries were to Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi, who is also the president's top security adviser and who remained unconscious from his wounds, the official said.

Those who, by protocol, would have been standing directly next to Saleh during the prayers — the prime minister and head of the upper house of parliament — both suffered heavy burns and wounds to the back, said officials close to the two men, who also declined to be identified because the issue is sensitive.

Before dawn Friday, shelling and gunbattles raged in Hassaba, where tribesmen have overrun more than a dozen ministries and government buildings. In the morning, government forces expanded their shelling to the capital's southern Hadda district, pounding the homes of two of al-Ahmar's brothers, Hameed and Himyar.

They also targeted the home of Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the powerful 1st Armored Division who has also joined the opposition but has so far stayed out of the battle. He is not related to Sadeq al-Ahmar. The houses were destroyed, witnesses said.

The al-Ahmars were once uneasy allies of Saleh, and their Hashid confederation was key to his hold on power. But Sadeq al-Ahmar and his nine brothers have grown increasingly resentful of Saleh's policy of elevating his sons, nephews and other relatives to dominate regime positions, particularly in the security forces.

Their fight comes as Saleh's forces continue to crack down on the tens of thousands of demonstrators still massing daily in a central square of Sanaa and in other cities.

Troops fired on protesters Friday in the city of Taiz, south of the capital, wounding two. A Defense Ministry statement said four soldiers were killed and 26 others injured in clashes there with gunmen it said were from the opposition and Islamist groups.

Despite the gunfire and shelling, protesters swarmed into a Sanaa main street for Friday prayers, filling a long stretch of a multilane boulevard. A series of coffins bearing victims of the past days' fighting were carried through the crowd. The cleric delivering the prayer sermon said Saleh was trying to turn the popular uprising into a personal conflict.

The president "wants to overturn this revolution and show the world that it is a conflict between al-Ahmar and Saleh," Imam Taha al-Mutawakil told the crowd.

Yemen's increasingly bloody struggle looks sure to go on as long as Saleh refuses to step down and it will complicate the already formidable challenge of uniting the country and rebuilding shattered state institutions in any post-Saleh era.

"The dangers a collapsed Yemen poses for the region are too horrendous to contemplate," said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates and senior analyst at Political Capital. "Although the border with Saudi Arabia is more secure than in recent years, it is still a relatively porous border.

"The consequences will be on the security front, as well as economic. AQAP (Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula) in particular will find comfort in a failed Yemen, and threaten the rest of the GCC and (this) will have implications for piracy across the Gulf of Aden," he said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Attack on president puts Yemen step closer to civil war

  1. Closed captioning of: Attack on president puts Yemen step closer to civil war

    >>> now we turn overseas where the arab spring is turning into arab summer and promises to be prolonged and hot and violent. there were disturbing developments in yemen today. getting closer there to all-out war. richard engle is withuts tonight. richard , good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. major developments in yemen . anger and protests have been building in yemen for four months, but today was the first attempt to actually kill the president. smo smoke can be seen rising near the presidential palace after what the president is calling an assassination attempt . it happened around midday prayers when across town, thousands of yemenis were protesting against ali abdul salah . some carrying bodies killed by security forces . at the time, president salah was in a mosque in his compound praying when suddenly it was hit by rockets. seven presidential guards were killed. at least three senior government officials were wounded. rumors spread president salah himself was dead.

    >> hours later, yemeni tv played an audiotape from him, sounding tired but alive. this was carried out by outlaw gangs, not dumb administrators. this is a coup attempt. they said he didn't appear on camera because he had burns on his face and body. the government blamed the attack on fighters loyal to leaders. in yemen , the tribes are loyal and heavily arms. salah never really controlled them. the tribe sided with demonstrator asking that he step down after he brokered deals to leave office peacefully in exchange for amnesty. thou there are attempts to force him to leave through protests or it seems, by killing him. and brian, yemen isn't the only country boiling over. in syria , protests are continuing to grow. in part, motivated by the death and apparent torture of a 13-year-old boy. a video, a very gruesome video of his body has been widely circulated online. today, there were more demstrazs in syria . and according to witnesses, at least 30 people were killed when syrian security forces opened fire. today, the syrian government shut down most mobile phones and internet service in the country.

    >> yemen and syria , two countries we western journalists can't get in to cover. what about where you are in libya and where gadhafi is still hanging on?

    >> after months of steal mate here, we're starting to see signs of progress. the rebels are advancing toward the capitol here in tripoli. at night, on many nights, there are clashes on neighborhoods in the outskirts of tripoli. the economic sanctions are also having a big impact here. c it could take several days here to fill up your car. there are incredible fuel shortages. the banks aren't giving out much money. we spoke to someone, he went to banks for five days and was only able to get $200.

    >> richard , thanks for your reporting.

Photos: July

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  1. A man prepares the grave of Hassan al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa, July 19. Fighting between government forces and opposition supporters erupted in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Monday, killing six people, among them al-Hora, opposition sources said. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, July 19. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl has ''will not leave'' written on her face during a rally to support Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa July 17. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Anti-government protestors shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, July 13. (Mohammed Hamoud / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An anti-government protester writes slogans on a wall using his own blood during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at Tagheer square in Sanaa on July 13. The words read "In my blood I protect Yemen." (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Girls light candles as they attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz July 9. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Yemeni anti-government protester displays bullets allegedly fired by supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration demanding Saleh’s ousting, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 8. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sit on stone pillars during a rally in support of President Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen, on July 8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged rallies around his vacant palace Friday after their leader's first TV appearance since being injured in a blast last month and leaving for treatment in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammed Al-Sayaghi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A supporter of Saleh kisses his picture as his supporters celebrate in Sanaa on July 7 after he appeared on television for the first time since he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saleh delivers a speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 7, making his first public appearance since he was wounded in an attack on his palace in Sanaa in June. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anti-government protesters join their hands and shout slogans demanding an end to the 32-year regime of President Saleh, in Sanaa on July 6. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A police vehicle is set ablaze during clashes between armed followers of the opposition and police in the southern city of Taiz on July 6. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A relative of victims of recent clashes talks to a member of the United Nations human rights investigation team, left, in Sanaa on July 5. The U.N. team arrived in Yemen last week to assess the situation in the country after months of unrest. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women recite prayers during a rally to demand the ouster of President Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on July 1. Tens of thousands of Yemenis turned Friday prayers into rallies for and against Saleh, who is recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt in June. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  2. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  3. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  4. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  5. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos
  6. YEMEN
    Karim Ben Khelifa
    Slideshow (20) Yemen in the spotlight

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