Yemen’s embattled leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was lightly wounded when opposition tribesmen shelled his presidential palace compound, the Associated Press reported on Friday. In a message purporting to come from Saleh, the embattled leader blamed the country's most powerful tribal federation for the attack.
Saleh blasted the Hashid tribe's powerful leader, Sadeq al-Ahmar, in the short audio speech broadcast on state television. “We need to understand that this gang of the al Ahmar sons will be defeated,” Saleh said, according to a translation by Al-Jazeera English. “They really worsened the situation today, and I am asking and calling upon all the citizens of Yemen to support the country.”
Yemen’s fragmented opposition has been squaring off against Saleh’s troops to retain key positions in the capital. Opposition tribesmen had left the mountains for the capital to reinforce Hashid tribal fighters.
For his part, Hashid leader Sadeq al-Ahmar denied responsibility in the attack earlier on Friday. He blamed Saleh for the attack, saying it was done to “help justify a government escalation of street fighting in the capital,” Reuters reports.
In his speech, Saleh said that seven were killed in the attack and many other officials seriously injured and that an investigation is under way, according to al-Jazeera.
The speech, in which Saleh was described to be short of breath, is more tepid than Saleh's past statements on the violence. In earlier statements, Saleh has vowed to fight until the "last drop of blood" and has adamantly refused to step down.
Yemen's opposition television initially reported that Saleh had been killed in the rocket attack, the first time opposition tribesmen have targeted his compound since violence erupted in the capital of Sana'a. Responding to conflicting television reports, Yemen's deputy information minister told Reuters that Saleh is alive. "The president is well ... there are some slight injuries among officials," Abdu al-Janadi said earlier on Friday.
Saleh suffered slight injuries to the neck and was taken to a Defense Ministry hospital, AP says.
The planned public appearance was delayed for several hours "because of scratches on [Saleh's] face," Janadi told AP. "There is nothing affecting the president's health."
A government official originally told AP that four of Saleh's top officials were wounded while praying at a mosque inside Saleh’s presidential palace compound. The prime minister, deputy prime minister, parliament chief, and a presidential aide were all wounded, the official said.
An official later provided fuller details about the casualties: At least six guards were killed and eight senior officials were wounded in the attack.
"We're watching closely the violence that's occurring in Yemen.... We still have some U.S. service members in country, and they're taking the necessary precautions," Pentagon spokesman Dave Lapan said. The State Department has already ordered nonessential personnel out of the country and has urged all Americans to leave the country, but the U.S. troops will remain for now. Any decision to leave "depends on the situation," Lapan said.
The Pentagon said there is still no evidence that U.S.-trained forces have fired on protesters in the escalating violence, despite reports that Saleh deployed the elite counterterrorism troops against political opponents for the first time this week. If confirmed, it's a move virtually certain to inflame tensions between Sana'a and Washington, where the administration has been urging an end to the violence.
"Right now, we have no evidence that any of the counterterrorism forces we've trained are being used against protesters," Lapan said. "We have seen reports that they have been engaged with armed forces, and we are looking for more information on that aspect. We're aware of those reports and looking into it ... so that we can understand the facts."
Lapan has said in earlier comments the Pentagon "consistently monitors our counterterrorism assistance to Yemen and takes allegations of misuse seriously.”
The U.S. trains Yemeni counterterrorism forces as part of its ongoing mission to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It is a group that chief U.S. counterterrorism analyst Michael Leiter recently called the “most significant risk to the U.S. homeland” and the most poised to successfully attack American cities. Last October, two mail bombs claimed to be sent by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula were intercepted before reaching synagogues in Chicago, and on Christmas Day 2009, airline passengers succeeded in stopping a Nigerian man trained by al-Qaida in Yemen from blowing up a Detroit-bound plane. Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki—currently on a U.S. capture-or-kill list—is thought to be hiding in Yemen’s restive south. With its counterterrorism partner distracted with the civil uprising, U.S. officials are concerned that the recent unrest will leave militants more latitude to plot attacks.
The U.S. has long condemned violence in the country, but has stopped short of publicly calling for Saleh to step down immediately. It's tricky ground for Washington, as Saleh has been a crucial ally in the war on terrorism in a country rife with anti-American sentiment. "The United States condemns in the strongest terms the senseless acts of violence today in Yemen, including the attack against the presidential palace compound in Sana’a as well as other attacks in Sana'a and throughout the country," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
Early last week, Saleh refused for the third time to sign an agreement that would lead to his resignation, the fruitless result of weeks of mediation by the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council. His continued defiance only escalated a volatile situation that may devolve into civil war. Yemen’s fragmented opposition has been squaring off against Saleh’s troops to retain key positions in the capital. Opposition tribesmen had left the mountains for the capital to reinforce fighters within Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid. Intense firefights in Sana’a led to the disruption of flights at Yemen’s main international airport on Thursday.
Amid the recent turmoil, the Obama administration upped its public rhetoric and called for Saleh to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. "We call on all sides to cease hostilities immediately and to pursue an orderly and peaceful process of transferring political power as called for in the GCC-brokered agreement," Carney said. "Violence cannot resolve the issues that confront Yemen, and today’s events cannot be a justification for a new round of fighting. We urge all sides to heed the wishes of the Yemeni people, whose aspirations include peace, reform, and prosperity."
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