Residents of Yemen’s capital Sana’a awoke on Tuesday to a dawn chorus of bird song and machine-gun fire. An uneasy truce between rebel tribesmen and loyalist troops had prevailed over the weekend. But now the two sides were back at it, launching shells at each other as windows rattled across the city and plumes of dark smoke rose into the crystal blue sky.
Despite four months of mass protests and defections from within his army, party and tribe, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has remained defiantly in place, seing off one effort to oust him after the next, while all the time maintaining that he is the pole who holds up the tent. Shortly after snubbing a third attempt at mediation by Gulf Arab neighbours last Sunday, Saleh sent his forces to take on the leaders of Yemen’s most powerful tribal organization, the Hashed, the leaders of which have been bankrolling the opposition and supporting the upkeep of hundreds of thousands of protesters camping out on the capital’s streets.
It was a dangerous fight to pick. The week’s worth of gun battles between the rebel tribesmen and Saleh’s troops has already claimed the lives of 150 people; and the confrontations are briskly fanning the fears of civil war. The two sides, now separated only by a few residential blocks, are firing anti-aircraft missiles at each other as they scramble for control of government buildings and the airport, their battle slowly encroaching the center of the city.
Life in the capital is growing fierce and desperate. Sana’a’s eastern suburb of Hasaba the crux of the clashes so far is now a ghost-town where Kalashnikov-wielding tribesmen in camouflage stalk streets empty of all humanity except for a few dazed looking old men sitting in the dust oblivious to the bullets and rockets flying around them.