SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni loyalist forces fought street battles with guards from a powerful tribal federation whose leader has sided with protesters demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, witnesses said on Tuesday.
The opposition warned that such attacks by loyalists and security forces, which residents said targeted the mansion of tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar, could spark a civil war.
At least 21 people were killed in the clashes, which dimmed prospects for a political solution to end a transition of power tussle nearly four-month-old revolt inspired by protests that swept aside the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.
“The clashes were violent. The sound of machinegun and mortar fire could be heard everywhere. I saw smoke rising from the entrance of the interior ministry,” one witness said.
Fourteen loyalists and security officers were killed, 30 were wounded and two missing “in the aggression launched by the Ahmars,” a security official said.
Seven of Ahmar’s men were killed, hospital doctors told Reuters.
Al Arabiya television said 24 of Ahmar’s guards were killed. The report could not be independently confirmed.
“The president (Saleh) has made an appeal to ... the Ahmars and security men to cease fire and, called on armed elements to withdraw from the ministries that they are occupying,” Abdu al-Janadi, a deputy information minister, told Al Jazeera TV.
The government accused Ahmar’s men of “attempting a coup” by attacking the Interior Ministry and several other government and police buildings.
The clashes followed the collapse on Sunday of a transition deal mediated by Gulf neighbours that Saleh was to have signed that would have given him immunity from prosecution.
The shooting, in the sandbagged streets near a fortified mansion belonging to the wealthy and politically powerful Ahmar clan, pitted loyalist forces against guards of Sadiq al-Ahmar, head of a tribal group from which Saleh also hails.
“The attack on (Ahmar’s) house ... is a symptom of the hysteria experienced by President Saleh and his entourage and their insistence on engulfing the country in a civil war,” the opposition coalition said in a statement.
Several mediators, including a security police head, were injured in the attack on the Ahmar house, where they had gathered to try to end the fighting, an opposition leader said.
Ahmar’s house and the adjacent residence of another Ahmar tribal leader, were damaged in the attacks, residents said.
Footage, which Al Jazeera television said was from inside the house, showed dazed and bloodied tribal guards carrying wounded comrades across ornate halls as dust filled the air.
Saleh loyalists and army forces used mortars and rocket-propelled grenades in the attack, witnesses told Reuters.
Fighting in the same area of the capital on Monday killed seven people.
U.S. PRESSES SALEH TO SIGN GULF-SPONSORED DEAL
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc of Yemen’s wealthy oil-exporting neighbours that spearheaded the transition deal, which Saleh has three times rebuffed at the last minute, later suspended it due to a “lack of suitable conditions.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States believed the GCC deal was still on the table.
“President Saleh has an agreement in front of him. He needs to sign it and put Yemen on a positive path so that they can resolve the current situation,” Toner said.
Asked if the United States might consider adjusting its considerable financial assistance to Yemen if the stalemate continues, Toner indicated this was a possibility.
“There’s a number of options in front of us as the situation continues to fester, and we’re looking at all options,” he said, while declining to provide specifics.
In Riyadh, Abdullatif al-Zayani, the GCC’s secretary-general, called for an immediate end to the fighting and suggested he could relaunch his mediation efforts.
“I’m always ready to visit (Yemen) if the visit will help the interests of the Yemeni people,” he told reporters.
The daily Asharq al-Awsat said Saudi Arabia was still hoping the deal could be signed at the “earliest opportunity.”
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by a wing of al Qaeda based in Yemen, are keen to end the Yemeni stalemate and avert a spread of anarchy that could give the global militant network more room to operate.
Saleh, playing on Western fears of chaos, blamed the opposition for the deal’s collapse and said that if a civil war erupted “they will be responsible for it and the bloodshed.”
While Saleh has backed out of previous deals aimed at easing him out of power, Sunday’s turnabout appeared to be among the most forceful, coming after loyalist gunmen trapped Western and Arab diplomats in the United Arab Emirates embassy for hours.