Tension grips Yemen capital despite Saleh sealing exit deal

AFP , Thursday 1 Dec 2011

Despite the President Ali Abdullah Saleh's signing for the Gulf-brokered power transfer plan, fierce battles between Saleh loyalists and dissident tribesmen typify the security scene in Yemen

Defected army soldiers stand guard on a vehicle while protestors, unseen, march during a demonstration demanding the prosecution of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. President Ali Abdullah Saleh's agreement to step down failed to end Yemen's violence Thursday as security forces killed several protesters demanding that the ousted leader be put on trial for past crimes ranging from corruption to bloodshed during the current uprising. (Photo:AP)


Ten days after President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a power transfer plan meant to end violence, Yemen's once-colourful capital remains torn between rival gunmen as destruction looms everywhere.

The streets of Sanaa's northern Al-Hasaba district, scene of deadly battles between Saleh loyalists and dissident tribesmen since May, are dotted with charred carcasses of cars and the red mud-bricks of traditional buildings.

And snipers are still hiding amid the debris of totally collapsed buildings.

"You can't pass through here. The road is blocked and snipers are everywhere," one man says as he raises his Kalashnikov.

Like others across the city, it is impossible to tell the allegiance of the gunman, who has a traditional Yemeni dagger glistening under a leather belt wrapped around his waist.

"Nothing has changed" since Saleh signed the agreement giving him and his family immunity from prosecution on November 23, laments Ahmed Hasan, who owns a bakery in the neighbourhood.

"Snipers are everywhere. Gunmen are deployed on the streets. Nights have become frightening in Al-Hasaba especially with the electricity cut off," says Hasan.

An elderly man who requested anonymity points to sand barricades erected on the streets, saying "they were built in the past few days" after the agreement was signed.

The accord, under which Saleh remains an honorary president, calls for forming a security committee which oversees the removal of all armed men from the cities. This apparently has not yet been implemented.

The only time of the day snipers come out of their hideouts is when they gather at the market between wrecked buildings to buy qat, a soft narcotic leaf that contains cathin and cathinone, which they chew for hours, especially in the afternoon.

Nothing is left of the headquarters of the official carrier Yemenia Airways except the remains of a completely burnt down building.

The building of the ruling General People's Congress is also in ruins as the facades of several ministry buildings have been destroyed.

Kilometres (miles) away, masked soldiers in blue suits wave their hands signalling that access is prohibited to the area, where the barracks of Republican Guard troops -- commanded by Saleh's son Ahmed -- are stationed.

Nearby, gunmen in plainclothes -- Saleh's supporters often referred to by the opposition as "thugs" -- block access to another street.

"We are locals. All we want is to protect ourselves," their leader says.

The gunmen accuse tribesmen loyal to dissident tribal chief Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar of attacking them.

"Two days ago Ahmar's militants opened fire on us when they passed by here. Therefore we have decided to block the road," said one of them.

In the adjacent neighbourhood of Sufan, dozens of opulent houses have been destroyed in the battles, especially those belonging to tribesmen.

Trenches have been dug along the main roads as well as tunnels through which fighters move from one part of the capital to another.

A few hundred kilometres (miles) from Al-Hasaba lies Change Square, where protesters have been camping out since February.

The area is controlled by dissident troops from the First Armoured Brigade commanded by General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who pledged support for anti-regime protesters in March.

Plainclothes gunmen who support opposition tribal leaders roam around the area in pickup trucks, even though young protesters insist on keeping their revolt peaceful.

What began as peaceful protests in January soon degenerated into battles between rival army troops, security forces and protesters, and between security forces and tribesmen, leaving hundreds of people dead across the deeply tribal country.

"We need another revolution against tribalism," said Shalil Naser, a defected member of Saleh's General People's Congress. "The tribes-dominated opposition is trying to exploit the youth movement."

But a completely different world lies further south in areas controlled by Saleh's troops.

In Hada district, Saleh's supporters brandish his portraits as security forces led by Saleh's nephew Yehya are deployed across the area, with songs hailing the 69-year-old playing loudly from passing cars.

"Whenever the protesters tried to reach this area, they were killed," says Ahmed Ali, an anti-Saleh Hada resident.

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