SANAA/TAIZ (Reuters) – Four Yemeni soldiers were killed in what appeared to be an ambush near an al Qaeda-held southern city after renewed protests in another city were met with deadly force, stoking concern about civil war.
A brief weekend calm was shattered on Sunday when forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh opened fire on protesters in Taiz, killing at least six people and wounding 120, hospital sources said.
Global powers are worried the country, already on the verge of financial collapse and home to al Qaeda militants, could turn into a failed state that threatens the oil-rich region and its neighbor Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.
The four soldiers were killed and dozens wounded as they were traveling to the coastal city of Zinjibar, a security official said on Monday. The official did not know who was responsible for the attack.
Several hundred al Qaeda and Islamist militants took over the Gulf of Aden city a few days ago and have been battling locals and government soldiers who are trying to regain control.
Zinjibar residents told Reuters power and water had been cut off and many civilians were fleeing to nearby towns.
In Taiz, about 150 km (95 miles) to the northwest, a Reuters photographer at the scene said police fired live ammunition and tear gas and used water cannon to disperse demonstrators outside a municipal building demanding the release of a fellow protester who was arrested on Saturday.
The clashes took place near Freedom Square where thousands of anti-government protesters have been camping since January to demand Saleh’s overthrow. Police set two tents on fire in the square. Protesters hurled petrol bombs and rocks at police.
In the capital Sanaa, about 200 kms north, several explosions were heard on Sunday night in the district of Hasaba, the scene of week-long fighting between Saleh’s forces and a rival tribe in which 115 people were killed, residents said.
There were no immediate details of the explosions, which may have breached a truce between Saleh’s forces and the powerful Hashed tribe led by Sadeq al-Ahmar to stop the bloodiest fighting since unrest erupted in January.
BLOOD ON THE STREETS
About 300 people have been killed over the past few months in demonstrations demanding an end to Saleh’s nearly 33-year reign in Yemen, by protesters inspired by the “Arab Spring” movement which toppled the long-standing rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.
Tribal leader Ahmar condemned what he described as “Saleh’s new massacre” of civilians in Taiz. Earlier on Sunday, his men handed back control of a government building to mediators as part of a ceasefire deal.
A breakaway military group called for other army units to join them in the fight to bring down Saleh, piling pressure on him to end his three-decade rule over the destitute country.
Generals and government officials began to abandon Saleh after deadly crackdowns on protesters started in force in March. There have been no major clashes yet between the breakaway military units and troops loyal to Saleh.
Despite demands by global and regional powers that he step down, Saleh has refused to sign a deal, mediated by Gulf States, to start a transition of power aimed at averting civil war that could shake the region that supplies much of the world’s oil.
Opposition leaders separately accused Saleh of allowing the city of Zinjibar, on the Gulf of Aden, to fall to al Qaeda and Islamists militants in order to raise alarm in the region that would in turn translate into support for the president.
Opposition groups and diplomats have accused Saleh of using the al Qaeda threat to win aid and support from regional powers seeking his government’s help in battling the militants.
Fears are growing that Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will exploit such instability, analysts said. The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of attacks by AQAP, are worried that growing chaos is emboldening the group.
Yemen, which sits beside a shipping lane through which about 3 million barrels of oil pass daily, is the poorest state on the Arabian Peninsula with about 40 percent of its 23 million people living on less than $2 a day.