SANA'A // Bloodshed continued in Yemen yesterday as government fighter jets bombed a town overrun by Islamic militants and forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh killed at least 20 demonstrators in a fierce assault on a protest camp in the southern city of Taiz.
Opponents, including a breakaway group of generals, have accused President Saleh of allowing militants to take over the small town of Zinjibar to bolster his argument that he is a key bulwark against al Qa'eda and win back support from the US and other countries.
Warplanes yesterday fired at the southern outskirts of the town and loud explosions were followed by rising columns of smoke. "The positions the army is targeting are residential areas," said resident Esam Mohammed.
Military units battled the militants in Zinjibar overnight in an attempt to clear the fighters from the town, where they have blockaded themselves behind barricades and rocks since Friday.
Shelling killed at least six of the fighters, bringing the death toll there since Saturday to 36, according to an official at Al Razi hospital. The dead included soldiers, militants and civilians, he said.
"The sound of explosions and bullets are rattling the city," said Waleed Mohammed Mokbal, who lives in the town centre. "Gunfire is non-stop."
Mr Saleh has repeatedly warned that Islamic militants and al Qa'eda would take control of the country if he was removed from power in the anti-government protest movement. His critics say the new round of military offensives by the government is meant to play on these fears.
Abdulbaki Shamsan, a professor of political sociology at Sana'a University, said: "After launching severe attacks on [Sheikh Sadeq] al Ahmar tribal leaders in Sana'a and attacks on the Nehm and Arab tribes outside the city, Saleh moved to the south and abandoned the city of Zinjibar to the militants to scare the West that al Qa'eda is going to take over after the regime leaves."
Hundreds of soldiers from the elite Republican Guards stormed the protest camp in Taiz yesterday, firing on crowds and bulldozing a field hospital set up in anticipation of such an attack. Security forces first tried to clear the square in Taiz with water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades, sending thousands rushing for shelter.
More than 20 protesters were killed in the attack and about 200 others wounded, according to Sadek al Shujaa, chief of the field clinic.
Forces from the Republican Guards, which is commanded by one of Mr Saleh's sons, moved in before dawn and were backed by tanks, said activists.
Witnesses said Republican Guards, other security forces and armed plain-clothed militiamen attacked the protesters. Dozens of tents, used by protesters occupying the square for weeks, were set ablaze and bulldozers demolished hundreds of other tents "without checking whether anyone was still inside", the witnesses said. Bushra al Maktari, an activist, said that about 100 protesters caught fire inside their tents and some corpses were found charred.
The violence in Taiz, the hotbed of the anti-regime protests, comes as the government appears close to open war with the powerful Hased tribal federation headed by Sheikh al Ahmar. An uneasy ceasefire was agreed to on Saturday after five consecutive days of fighting. Sheikh al Ahmar on Sunday called on all Yemeni tribes to unite against Mr Saleh, a one-time ally.
Faris al Saqqaf, director of the Future Studies Centre, said: "The regime thinks by such an attack on the al Ahmar tribal family, he would create a sense of fear and awe but the response was negative. The tribes of Hashed were provoked and they threatened they would launch a massive attack on the capital."
Mr al Saqqaf said the government's use of battlefield weapons and tactics against the protesters and tribes is Mr Saleh's gambit to show international observers that he alone has the power to control the country.
"These multiple fronts the regime is fighting demonstrate that it wants to repeat the Libyan experience to show that it is not facing a peaceful uprising but an armed rebellion," said Mr al Saqqaf, who added that he believes the ploy has backfired on Mr Saleh.
"This weakens the position of the regime and its credibility. The crackdown on the protest site in Taiz is likely to move to other areas so that the regime removes all sites where peaceful protests are being held," he said.
Mr Shamsan said if the international community fails to intervene and exert pressure on Mr Saleh to end the violence, the situation in Yemen could get even more deadly. Mr Saleh, a wily leader who has clung to power for nearly 33 years, has three times walked away from a Gulf Co-operation Council plan for a peaceful transfer of power.
"The international community has to take an action, otherwise young protesters might lose hope in the peaceful means for change, mainly after the brutal attack on them Taiz," Mr Shamsan said.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press