SANAA, Yemen — The fighting that broke a cease-fire Tuesday in dramatic fashion, continued to rage into Wednesday night.
Clashes between forces loyal to Yemen’s president and those loyal to rebel tribesman sent residents fleeing for safety outside of the city.
Sanaa shook as more than 24 hours of continuous shelling showed no sign of stopping. The fighting left the northern Al-Hasaba district of Sanaa in ruins. The usual busy streets are now completely empty, save for a few abandoned and bombed out cars left behind by those escaping the violence.
Checkpoints manned by tribesmen brandishing AK-47s, Kalishnakov machine guns, Dragunov sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-mounted missile launchers have popped up all over the city.
The tribesmen, mostly from the Hashid confederation, which has been fighting forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh for more than a week now, are well armed. Their ammunition vests are bursting at the seams as their gun barrels bear down on passing traffic. Some are positioned inside distant bunkers built with sandbags stacked seven feet high.
At times looking as disciplined and organized as any professional army, the tribesmen communicate through CB radio handsets, directing forces and coordinating with commanders to allow certain supply trucks to move into the area.
“Traffic has picked up toward the south, send more men to the checkpoint,” said one tribesman on his radio, a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder.
While the fighting rages in the capital, however, it is the hundreds of thousands of heavily armed tribesmen in northern Yemen’s rugged, mountainous countryside that might ultimately decide Saleh’s fate.
Last week, members of the Bakil tribal confederation shot down a loyalist helicopter and captured a base belonging to the Republican Guard, Yemen’s elite military unit, in the Nahm region of Sanaa province, about 30 miles northeast of the capital.
The Bakil confederation has pledged to take up arms and join the Hashid — which was once their rivals — if Saleh continues to attack them in Sanaa. While the Hashid confederation wields more political power, the Bakil vastly outnumber the Hashid.
If an alliance between the two confederations does come about, it would form a powerful, well-armed opposition with the capability of defeating forces loyal to Saleh, who has managed to retain power, sometimes against all odds, for more than 30 years.
Princeton University based Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen affirms that an alliance between the two confederation would spell the end for Saleh.
In Yemen, the Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations have often been referred to as the “two wings” of the state, meaning that Yemen cannot fly without them. If these two powerful confederations align against Salih, it will be impossible for him to continue to rule,” he said.
However, Johnsen also noted that the fractured nature of the tribal confederations may make it difficult for large alliances to take shape.
“It is important to remember that neither Hashid or Bakil are monolithic blocs and there are often sizable fissures within the confederation and even amongst particular tribes,” said Johnsen.
Fua’ad Abdul Aziz Al-Shulaif, sheikh of the Nahm tribe, which is part of the Bakil confederation, has called on tribesmen serving in government military units to defect. He said he had asked them to help teach their fellow tribesmen how to use weapons seized from the captured Republican Guard base.
Al-Shulaif said numerous soldiers have already defected, heeding the call. The soldiers, he said, have so far trained 20 of Nahm’s tribesmen on how to use tanks and other heavy artillery.
“Six of our 30 tanks are now operational. We also have our anti-aircraft guns and artillery on standby should we be attacked again,” he said.
Al-Shulaif said the Nahm tribe supports the so-called “Youth Revolution” but will not come to Sanaa to fight against Saleh unless the protesters ask for protection.
“We will be glad to defend our brothers in the peaceful revolution but we will not fight our way into Sanaa unless we are asked by them,” Al-Shulaif said.
In Sanaa, the home of Sadeq al-Ahmar, Hashid’s most prominent sheikh, lies dark and burnt. It was an attack by government forces on al-Ahmar’s home, a 10-story palatial compound, last week that first triggered the clashes.
Several sheikhs attending a tribal mediation that day were killed when the house was hit directly by government artillery. It has been the target of shelling ever since and now lies in near ruins. Its windows have been blown out and parts of the building’s facade litter the street. Blood is splattered on the walls of the compound.
“Here is blood, and here is blood,” said one tribesman, pointing to the walls and the ceiling of the house.
After changing hands several times in the last week, the tribesmen now control the section of the city where the headquarters of Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress, is located. An enormous portrait of Saleh adorns the entrance of the building, peering over a high stone wall. It is pock-marked with bullet holes.
Two sandbag bunkers, behind which 10 tribesmen are now taking cover, block the entrance to the building. The words “Get out” are spray-painted in Arabic on the heavily fortified front gate.