x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Ceasefire in Yemen after day of clashes

At least 160 people have been killed this week in battles between Yemeni security forces and Hashed fighters, members of Yemen's most powerful tribal group.

SANA'A // An uneasy ceasefire was announced last night between Yemeni tribes and the government after a day of deadly battles in which tribesmen overran military checkpoints and the government unleashed air strikes on tribal enclaves.

"We are committed to a truce and we are ready if [President] Ali Abdullah Saleh wants a peaceful revolution," Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, head of the Hashid tribal federation, said yesterday at a funeral for 30 of his fighters killed in earlier clashes with Mr Saleh's forces in the capital.

"However, if he wants war, we will stand up to him and will battle him until the last drop of our blood," Sheikh Ahmar said.

His strong words suggest the tenuous nature of the truce between the tribal bloc and the government. At least 160 people have been killed this week in battles between Mr Saleh's security forces and Hashid fighters, members of Yemen's most powerful tribal group, who had joined the popular uprising against the longtime ruler.

The violence increased fears the country could be thrown into civil war if Mr Saleh continues to cling to power after months of protests demanding his departure.

Mr Saleh's spokesman, Ahmed al Soufi, confirmed the ceasefire agreement last night and said tribal chiefs led by Shiekh Awad al Wazeer came to the president and offered to broker an end to hostilities. Mr Soufi said the government has demanded that Shiekh Ahmar's militia leave the government buildings, including five ministries, they captured during the week of fighting in the capital. Negotiations were still underway last night, according to the Mr Soufi.

Early yesterday, clashes broke out between fighters from the Nehm tribe and Republican Guards in Al Fardha area, about 75 kilometres northeast of Sanaa, on the road to the city of Maarib.

"Early in the morning, we launched attacks against three Republican Guards checkpoints in Al Fardha area, and we were able to take control of one of the checkpoints," a tribal source said.

Another tribal source said 12 Nehm fighters were killed in the fighting, which he said began because Republican Guards set up checkpoints on the road to prevent them from travelling to Sanaa to reinforce Shiekh Ahmar.

A Republican Guard general was reported killed and dozens wounded as government forces were driven from the checkpoints after a fierce, six-hour gun battle, a witness said.

The government responded by deploying helicopters and MiG jet fighters to retake the sites, a defence ministry official said. Tribal leaders in Nehm said government aircraft trafed and bombed villages in the area at random, leaving at least 11 dead and more than 45 injured, more than half of them children and women.

"Our houses were attacked and we have to react to save our families from the violence of the government," said Sheikh Saleh Nageeb. "Our blood is not cheap and we will avenge from the government for every drop of Nehm blood that is shed."

Senior tribal leader Sheikh Farooq al Shulaif was reported killed in the air strikes, and his family has vowed revenge. "Whether Saleh leaves power or stays he will pay for the death of our leader," said a relative of Sheikh Shulaif. "We will wait and avenge even if it takes ten years."

Ahmed Soufi, a senior adviser to Mr Saleh, said the clashes in Nehm erupted when armed tribesmen tried to pass through to Sana'a to reinforce the Hashid forces there.

But tribal leaders said the fighting started when Republican Guards, an elite force run by Mr Saleh's son, attacked one of the Nehm villages, killing two tribesmen.

"The guards attacked one of our villages for no reason. We will fight back anyone who tries to attack us," said Sheikh Moqbel Najeeb, a tribal leader in the area. The violence poses a major new threat to Mr Saleh because of the enormous strength of tribal loyalties among Yemenis. The Hashid groups northern-based tribes number hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, giving the Hashid's leaders enormous power. It includes Saleh's own tribe, the Sanhan, and the confederation's influence is strong enough that around half the Sanhan have abandoned the president since the Hashid leadership announced it was joining the opposition weeks ago.

"All the tribes of Yemen will soon be facing the same enemy. Saleh thought he was powerful. No, the tribes are powerful and do not accept tyranny," said Abdul Qawi Qaisi, spokesman for Shiehk Ahmar.

Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis held peaceful protests across the country yesterday to call for the a peaceful end to Mr Saleh's 32 years in power. Many demonstrators denounced violence and the threat of civil war.

"We are worried about what is happening. We consider the tribes just a component in the public revolt, which should remain peaceful. We do reject solving this crisis militarily which will lead to the domination of the tribes again. We want a civil state," said Bushra al-Maktari, a protest activist in Taiz.

In Sana'a, tens of thousands went to hear Shiekh Ahmar announce the truce with the government. He thanked the protesters for their sympathy and said he and his brothers were not hurt. According to opposition sources, the ceasefire agreement requires both sides to pull out their armed forces from the district of Hasaba north of Sana'a.

Waseem al Kirshi, a protest activist in Sana'a, said leaders of youth organisations have appealed to the tribes to avoid armed confrontations.

"We and the tribesmen who left their guns at home have been facing the gunfire of Saleh with bare chests for four weeks and we will continue to keep our revolution peaceful and will not be dragged into violence," said Mr Kirishi.

"We have sent a plea to the tribes to remain peaceful. We do understand their position now as they have been attacked in their houses and they have to defend themselves," said Mr al-Kirshi.