SANAA, (Reuters) – President Ali Abdullah Saleh and tribal leaders must agree a broad cease-fire immediately to prevent wider conflict that would plunge Yemen into civil war, an influential think-tank said in a conflict risk alert.
Fighting this week has killed some 115 people, prompted thousands of residents to flee Sanaa and raised the spectre of chaos that could benefit the Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda and threaten adjacent Saudi Arabia, the world’s No. 1 oil exporter.
“To prevent further escalation and loss of life, the most urgent step is for both sides to immediately accept a cease-fire mediated by Yemen’s statesmen and tribal leaders,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a conflict risk alert issued late on Friday.
The latest fighting, pitting Saleh’s security forces against members of the powerful Hashed tribe led by Sadeq al-Ahmar, was the bloodiest since pro-democracy unrest erupted in January and was sparked by a Saleh refusal to sign a power transfer deal.
“While fighting has centred primarily on these two groups, it could easily escalate, drawing in other tribal factions,” the ICG report said.
On Friday, Yemeni tribesmen said they wrested a military compound from elite troops loyal to the president 100 km outside Sanaa, widening a conflict hitherto concentrated mainly in the capital near the home of Ahmar.
The fighting has overshadowed a largely peaceful protest movement that started months ago aimed at ending Saleh’s 33-year-long autocratic rule and inspired by the movements that brought down the long-standing leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
“Urban youth and civil society activists, who initiated the protest movement, stand to lose the most from this turn of events,” the ICG report said. It said any truce should be bundled into a deal that eases Saleh out of power.
International powers should be involved, it said, “but, given the deeply personal and tribal nature of the feud between the Salehs and al-Ahmars, it cannot be addressed effectively by international mediation or initiatives alone.”
Global powers have little sway in Yemen where tribal allegiances are the most powerful element of its volatile social fabric and the fighting already appears to be playing out along tribal lines.
Mediators have become exasperated with Saleh, saying he had repeatedly imposed new conditions each time a Gulf-led transition agreement was due for signing, most recently demanding a public signing ceremony.
Machinegun fire and explosions rattled Sanaa this week before clashes eased after mediation efforts. Ahmar’s fighters evacuated government ministry buildings they had grabbed in return for a cease-fire and troops quitting their area.
“We are now in mediation and there has been a ceasefire between the two sides,” Ahmar, close to an Islamist opposition party, told protesters on Friday in “Change Square.”
The cease-fire applies only to the area around the Ahmar compound in Sanaa — a city now split between the two sides.
There was also an informal truce in place in an area northeast of Sanaa where tribes said on Friday said they had seized a military post.
Yemeni air force fighters had strafed those tribal fighters with bombs and broke the sound barrier in flights over Sanaa.
There are worries that impoverished Yemen, where some 40 percent of the country’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day, could become a failed state located on a shipping lane through which 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
In the south, dozens of armed men believed to be from al Qaeda appeared to have full control of city of Zinjibar in the flashpoint province of Abyan on Saturday, a day after storming the city and chasing out security forces, residents said.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by the Yemen wing of al Qaeda, are concerned any spread of anarchy could embolden the militant group.
With Saleh’s government mired in worsening political strife, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is likely to have more freedom to apply a proven talent for daring and inventive bombing plots, analysts said.
“Given how distracted Saleh’s government is in its attempts to cling to power, AQAP has much more open space in which to operate at the moment,” said Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen.