SANAA, Yemen (AP) Ã¢â‚¬â€ Forces loyal to Yemen’s newly returned president attacked pro-opposition troops with mortar shells and heavy gunfire Saturday and used rooftop snipers to pick off unarmed protesters fleeing in panic, killing more than 40 people and littering the streets of the capital with bodies.
One of the most powerful rivals to President Ali Abdullah Saleh Ã¢â‚¬â€ a senior general who threw his support and his troops behind the anti-regime uprising Ã¢â‚¬â€ warned that the president appears set on driving the country into civil war, calling on the international community to rein him in.
Saleh, who has clung to power despite nearly eight months of protests and an assassination attempt that left him severely burned, abruptly returned to Yemen on Friday after more than three months of treatment in Saudi Arabia for his wounds. Street battles that had reignited a week earlier in Sanaa rapidly escalated, signaling a possible full-fledged attempt to crush his rivals and tighten his grip on the country he has ruled for 33 years.
In a strongly worded statement, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who commands the 1st Armored Division, called Saleh a “sick, vengeful soul” and compared him to the Roman emperor Nero, burning down his own city.
“With his return, Yemen is experiencing sweeping chaos, and the harbingers of a crushing civil war which this ignorant is determined to ignite,” al-Ahmar said in the statement.
He called on the neighboring Gulf countries, the United States, and the international community to “deter him, stop his irresponsible behavior that aims to ignite a civil war that would have repercussions on the whole region.”
Yemen’s turmoil is of deep concern to the United States and much of the West because the country is a haven for Islamic militants, including a branch of al-Qaida that Washington says is the most dangerous remnant of the terror network. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has launched several nearly successful attacks on the U.S., including the failed plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009 with explosives sewn into the underwear of a would-be suicide bomber.
With the country spiraling deeper into disorder, al-Qaida linked militants have already seized control of entire towns in southern Yemen beyond their traditional strongholds.
In response to the recent violence, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the alliance of Saudi Arabia and five other energy-rich nations, called for a cease-fire and urged Saleh to immediately sign a power transfer deal proposed by the group.
“The security and humanitarian situation in Yemen can’t take any more delays,” a statement issued by the group, currently in New York, said.
Opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri held Saleh directly responsible for the killings.
“It’s as if he was unleashed from a cage and came out to retaliate,” al-Sabri said. “This man deals with Yemen as if he’s a gang leader, not a leader of a nation.”
Saturday’s deaths raise to at least 140 the number of people killed the past week.
Much of Saturday’s violence centered on the neighborhoods around the main protest encampment known as Change Square, where thousands have held a sit-in since February to demand that Saleh give up power.
Republican Guard troops and Central Security forces battled soldiers loyal to al-Ahmar who were trying to protect the protesters. Government forces pounded the area with mortar shells and fired anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades down streets. From above, snipers methodically fired at panicked protesters running for shelter. The shelling wrecked several houses, witnesses said.
At least 28 protesters and one of the soldiers guarding them were killed Saturday, said Mohammed al-Qabati, a medic who works at a field hospital in the square. Fifty-four people were wounded, he said.
The intensity of the fighting forced ambulance crews to leave many of the bodies in the streets, he said.
“More bodies and injured are pouring into the hospital,” al-Qabati said, adding that many of the injured were transported by motorcycle.
In the northwest of the capital, Sanaa, mortar shells rained down on the headquarters of the Al-Ahmar’s 1st Armored Division. Eleven of al-Ahmar’s troops were killed and 112 were wounded, according to Abdel-Ghani al-Shimiri, a spokesman for the soldiers.
An official in al-Ahmar’s office said the troops will remain only in on the defensive and won’t go after Saleh’s troops. The official said al-Ahmar conveyed the message to diplomats in Sanaa, who are apparently trying to contain the violence.
On a third front, Saleh’s troops fought anti-government tribesmen in the capital’s Hassaba district. Clashes there over the past two days killed 18 tribal fighters, according to a statement Saturday from tribal elders.
Hassaba is home to Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid, led by Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, another Saleh foe. He is not related to Maj. Gen. al-Ahmar.
Eight government troops were also killed and dozens wounded, said Interior Minister Gen. Mouthar al-Masri. He did not specify when or where the casualties occurred.
Violence also shook the southern city of Taiz, home to one of the strongest waves of anti-Saleh protests, and at least one protester was killed there, a medical official said.
Yemen’s uprising began in February as the unrest spreading throughout the Arab world set off largely peaceful protests in this deeply unstable corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Saleh’s government responded with a heavy crackdown that has killed hundreds.
In another sign that Saleh is trying to cement his authority after returning, he is pressuring his vice president to leave the country, and some of the government shelling even targeted an area near the vice president’s house, government officials said. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, they said Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was very disappointed with the renewed violence.
During Saleh’s absence, Hadi was officially in charge of Yemen’s day-to-day affairs and led negotiations with government opponents aiming for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
But Saleh used his powerful son Ahmed, who controls the elite Republican Guard forces, to remain in ultimate control behind the scenes.
A U.S.-backed deal mediated by Yemen’s Arab neighbors would have required Saleh to resign and transfer his powers to the vice president in return for immunity from any prosecution. Saleh endorsed the deal several times only to balk at signing at the last minute.
Abdu al-Janadi, a government spokesman, told reporters Saturday that the deal could be signed soon after the various parties agree on a mechanism of implementation.
Still, the opposition is deeply distrustful of Saleh, and some factions now say too much blood has been spilled to let Saleh escape justice.