Dissidents overrun Yemen's Taez as US urges swift transition

AFP and Reuters, Tuesday 7 Jun 2011

Yemeni dissidents seize control of protest hotbed Taez to “protect the peaceful demonstrators” as the US and ‎Europe press Saudis to make Saleh’s stay permanent ‎

Armed supporters of Yemen's opposition stand at the gate of a state-run power station they occupied in the southern city of Taez, Monday, (Reuters).

Armed dissidents have seized control of most of Yemen's second largest city, Taez, following clashes with troops loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a top tribal chief said Tuesday.

"I consider Taez to have fallen under the control" of the dissidents, Sheikh Hammoud Saeed Al-Mikhlafi, the head of the tribal council in Taez told AFP by telephone.

Al-Mikhlafi said tribal gunmen have been deployed in the city to "protect the peaceful (anti-regime) demonstrators" after they faced a "genocide" by pro-Saleh security forces last week.

More than 50 demonstrators were killed last week after security forces cracked down on a sit-in in Freedom Square in central Taez, according to the UN human rights office.

"We the tribes, in support to the oppressed and in retaliation against the illegitimate government... have deployed around government installations...which we now control in order to protect from thugs," said Al-Mikhlafi.

He said clashes "continued until the morning with remnants" of loyal troops, pointing to the Republican Guard and the Central Security, led by members of Saleh's family.

Saleh left for Saudi Arabia on Saturday for treatment, a day after being wounded in a bomb attack on a mosque in his presidential compound in Sanaa.

The United States suggested that Yemen's government seize on President Ali Abdullah Saleh's absence to bring about a swift and peaceful handover of power.

While Saleh remains in Riyadh recovering from his wounds, there is a chance that Yemen can avoid the descent into chaos that Saudi Arabia and the United States are anxious to avoid, analysts say.

"We are calling for a peaceful and orderly transition," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington. "We feel that an immediate transition is in the best interests of the Yemeni people."

Yemen's acting leader, Vice President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, said Saleh would return within days, but the attitude of Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally played a neutral role in Yemeni politics, could now be decisive.

Saudi officials insist they will not interfere with Saleh's decision to return to Yemen or stay in the kingdom, but behind the scenes the United States and Europe are likely to be pressing the Saudis to ensure Saleh's stay becomes permanent.

"The Saudis will seize the opportunity...to extend his medical recovery into a political rest," said Yemen expert Khaled Fattah. The risk of Yemen descending into Somalia-style anarchy was "a nightmare for Saudi national security".

In the Yemeni capital Sanaa, a Saudi-brokered truce was holding after two weeks of fighting between Saleh's forces and a powerful tribal group in which more than 200 people were killed and thousands forced to flee.

In addition to fighting in Taez, clashes took place in the southern province of Abyan, where armed men killed seven soldiers and wounded  12 others in clashes in Zinjibar on Monday, a local official and witnesses said.

An army force had tried to storm the town of 20,000. Last month, dozens of armed men believed to be from al Qaeda rushed into Zinjibar, chasing out security forces.

The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council urged all parties to work to end violence and said it was continuing its efforts to negotiate a power-transfer deal. Saleh has three times agreed to hand over power and three times reneged on the deal.

In a joint statement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the prime ministers of Britain, Spain and Italy, thanked Saudi Arabia for receiving Saleh for treatment, and called on all parties in Yemen to "find a means of reconciliation on the basis of the GCC initiative."

Yemen, which relies on oil for 60 per cent of its economy, has been dealt a heavy blow by the closure of an oil pipeline that trade sources said has caused a fuel shortages.

But the future of Yemen, riven by rivalries among tribal leaders, generals and politicians, remains uncertain.

"Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia isn't just courtesy from the Saudi ruling family," said Egyptian political analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah. "The security of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf is linked to security in Yemen."

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