SANAA (Reuters) - Rival Yemeni forces clashed in the capital Sanaa on Wednesday, killing two people, as the opposition awaited clarification from Gulf Arab mediators on the timeframe for a proposed transfer of the president’s powers.
Three people were killed in violence elsewhere in Yemen, including two shot dead in the southern city of Aden when security forces tried to break up a march demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule, witnesses said.
Gulf Arab foreign ministers have said they will invite Saleh and his opponents to mediation talks on a transfer of power in Yemen to end a standoff after two months of street protests.
The opposition initially rejected the plan, but met ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman on Tuesday to seek clarification of the proposal.
Opposition sources said they expected an answer from the Gulf on Wednesday on the timeframe and details of the plan, and could respond immediately. An opposition source said talks could start as early as Saturday in Riyadh.
In Sanaa, tension remained high near the encampment of a powerful army general, Ali Mohsen, who has defected from the president and whose forces are protecting thousands of anti-Saleh protesters in their tent camp near Sanaa University.
“Central security forces clashed with the forces of the first armored division, and two troops were killed outright while four more are in a critical condition,” a military source said. One of the dead was from Mohsen’s forces, the other from the government side.
A source close to Mohsen’s forces said pro-Saleh security forces had fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles at Mohsen’s troops who had set up a checkpoint on a road leading to the protest zone.
Mohsen’s forces returned fire and battled the government forces for an hour before Saleh’s forces retreated, leaving the checkpoint intact, the source close to Mohsen said.
An Interior Ministry statement accused Mohsen’s forces of starting the violence and said that police had no rocket-propelled grenade launchers in their possession.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in the capital after the clashes despite driving rain, saying they remained committed to the president’s removal.
“What worries us is that a war will break out between the army forces supporting the revolution and those who support the president staying. At that point the revolution will end and Yemen could turn into another Somalia just as Ali Saleh wants,” protester Ali Ahmed said in Sanaa.
More than 100 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces since late January, and there are fears the violence could escalate in the impoverished country, half of whose 23 million people own a gun.
Yemen’s Western allies and neighboring Saudi Arabia fear that chaos in Yemen, where Saleh has already lost control of some provinces, could benefit an al Qaeda arm that has used the country as a base to launch attacks on Saudi and U.S. territory.
But nearby countries became convinced that Saleh is an obstacle to stability in a country that overlooks a shipping lane used to transport over 3 million barrels of oil a day.
At least two demonstrators were killed in Aden when police tried to stop protesters marching from one district to another. Protesters hurled rocks at police as they tried to clear makeshift roadblocks, residents said.
Later, snipers spread across rooftops in two districts of the city and police repelled an attempt by protesters to storm a police station, a political activist said. Sporadic gunfire could be heard across the city all morning.
“There is a deployment of snipers on rooftops in Mansoura and Krater districts. This could lead to a violent explosion,” the activist said, declining to be named.
Elsewhere in Aden, former capital of an independent southern state before the two Yemens merged under Saleh in 1990, security forces deployed in armored vehicles or with water cannon.
South Yemenis, who complain of marginalization since a civil war with the north in 1994, insist any deal must give them a say in government.
In Taiz, an industrial city south of Sanaa where tens of thousands have joined protests, eight soldiers were wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade hit their car, the state news agency said. It blamed the attack on the umbrella opposition group.
Police and plainclothes gunmen fired on protesters in the town of Ibb, also south of the capital, wounding 10 university students, a protest movement leader and witnesses said.
In the southern province of Lahej, where separatists are active, a soldier was shot dead when he tried to prevent gunmen from taking weapons through a checkpoint in the town of Yafie.
Even before the start of the protests, inspired by the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and cement a truce with Shi’ite Muslim rebels in the north.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; editing by Tim Pearce and Jonathan Lynn