SANA'A // Members of some of Yemen's most powerful tribes are heading to the capital to protect protesters from attacks by forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, sources said yesterday. Their move marks an escalation in anti-government protests that some fear could lead to civil war.
The call for aid from youth-led opposition groups came after troops loyal to President Saleh on Wednesday killed 16 protesters, mostly in the capital, and wounded hundreds more in clashes across the country. About 300 tribesmen, most of them armed, were answering the plea to help guard tens of thousands of demonstrators already in Sana'a, the sources said.
Ali Asemi, an attorney and human rights activist, said: "This is the final step in Yemen before a civil war. No one can imagine what 25 million armed people are capable of doing."
In another sign that the months-long conflict could spiral into pandemonium, 25 soldiers were wounded in a gun battle between pro-Saleh and rebel military units on Wednesday night.
It was the first time government soldiers had turned their guns on each other since the anti-government demonstrations began in January and came after forces loyal to Mr Saleh were stopped by the rebel units from carrying out an assault on the main protest site in Sana'a.
Mohammed Awami, a senior official in Mr Saleh's ruling General People's Congress party, said: "Yemen is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. The Yemeni war will expand to its neighbours if they do not help in solving the country's crisis. The Gulf region is not prepared for chaos."
The latest escalation came after the Gulf Cooperation Council last month urged all sides in the conflict to sign up to a transition plan aimed at ending the bloodshed. Under the proposal, Mr Saleh would quit office in 30 days. But he has stalled the deal by refusing to sign it in his capacity as a president, insisting on endorsing the agreement as the leader of the ruling General People's Congress, contrary to the demands of the opposition.
The United States yesterday condemned the violence by Yemen's security forces against anti-regime demonstrators, and urged Mr Saleh to sign a deal "now" ensuring he steps down.
Washington "is deeply concerned by recent violence throughout Yemen, and joins [the European Union] in strongly condemning these troubling actions," the State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the violence continued yesterday.
Yemeni police trying to disperse thousands of protesters in Sana'a and Taiz wounded 45 people, some by gunfire, according to witnesses. In Taiz, protesters overran a government building.
In an attempt by Mr Saleh to prevent conditions in Sana'a from spinning further out of control, government security forces were put on high alert yesterday on all approach routes to the capital. Checkpoints were in place on all of the city's main roads, many manned by the Republican Guards, an elite military unit assigned to protect Mr Saleh and his regime.
But it was the role of the tribes that could mark a turning point. A security official in Sana'a said: "This is the first time youth protesters have openly called for tribes to give them security. We are taking this threat seriously."
Tribes from the Mareb, Arhab, Jawf and Kholan regions were the first to respond to the plea. A tribal leader from Kholan said his tribes could not stay quiet while innocent blood was being spilt at peaceful protests.
Sultan Bahlooli, a tribal leader from Kholan district, said: "We do not want violence. We want peace. We are heading to Sana'a to ensure that no one is killed. However, if the government wants to use weapons against unarmed protesters, then we will be ready."
Mr Saleh's government has also called out to tribesmen loyal to it. Yesterday, witnesses said, many Saleh loyalists were seen flooding streets of the capital in a reply to what they say was a call by the ruling party to support Mr Saleh. Hundreds of armed tribesmen from Baitha and Dhammar provinces have moved to camps in Sana'a to wait for orders to defend the regime.
Abdul Malik Jameeli, a pro-Saleh tribesman from Dhammar, said his tribe is coming to Sana'a "to defend our president from the terrorist opposition parties." The atmosphere in Sana'a is tense and witnesses reported that hundreds of government forces are still stationed near the entrances of the Sana'a protest camp and could launch an attack at any moment.
Hasan Zaid, an official with the opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), said: "They will clash and many will die, especially after protesters have threatened to march to the presidential palace, Both sides want to flex their muscles and show their strength."
The opposition has called on the United Nations Security Council to hold Mr Saleh's regime accountable for the killing of more than 170 protesters since late January.
The government blames the opposition for turning the protests violent and holds the demonstrators responsible for killing government forces.
Officials in the interior ministry said last week that 56 members of the security forces have been killed and more than 500 injured in attacks led by the JMP. Tareq Shami, spokesman for the Saleh government, said: "Machine guns entered the protest area in Sana'a hidden inside ambulances. They are not peaceful."
The interior ministry announced two months ago that the Houthis, a tribal group that has spearheaded a Shiite rebel movement in northern Yemen, have a strong presence in the Sana'a protest movement and are well armed. At least 4,000 Houthi followers joined the revolution in March. They are known to be experienced fighters and have gone through six wars in as many years with the Sana'a government.
Abdu Ganadi, the deputy minister of information, said: "The youth are calling for peaceful protests while they know that inside their camps they have hundreds of machine guns, especially in the Houthi camps."
Yemenis own 70 million small arms and other battlefield weapons, almost three per citizen, according to a study conducted by Dar Salam Organisation, which wants to rid Yemen of weapons.
The protest leaders have until now called for a peaceful transfer of power. "We seek to make the Yemeni revolution historic and peaceful. However, the Saleh regime only recognises the use of force," said Tawwakul Karman, a youth-protest leader.
Ali Jaradi, editor of the independent newspaper Ahale, said, "Saleh always said that if he leaves office, Yemen will be another Somalia and the country will witness a civil war, but it's the complete opposite. If he stays in power today, Yemen will surely enter a civil war. That is why he must leave."
One remaining hope for many Yemenis is that both sides in the conflict accept the GCC proposal for the transition of power. The plan proposes the formation of a government of national unity, with Mr Saleh transferring power to his vice president and resigning after 30 days, a day after parliament passes a law granting him and his aides immunity.
The ruling party's Mr Awami said: "The Gulf proposal for Saleh to step down is the final option, If that does not succeed, the outcomes will destroy everything."
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press