Nine people were killed in two days of clashes between tribal fighters who are opposed to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and an elite military unit loyal to him, a tribal official said Wednesday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said violent clashes were ongoing in the town of Arhab, 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of the capital Sanaa, between Republican Guard troops commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmed, and fighters from the Bakil tribe, the most influential tribe in the country.
“Five tribesmen were killed Tuesday and another four Monday in extremely violent clashes,” he said.
The fighting comes as Yemen teeters towards a state of near collapse following months of anti-government protests and growing influence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as its embattled president remains absent from the scene.
Saleh, who has been receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia since a June attack on his presidential compound, has resisted regional and international calls for him to step down despite more than eight months of nation-wide protests calling for his ouster.
The state news agency SABA however reported on Monday that Saleh had authorised his deputy to negotiate a power transfer with the opposition, finally agreeing to a proposal by Gulf countries to put an end to a months-long political crisis.
In recent weeks, troops from both sides of Yemen’s political divide have bolstered their military presence in the capital, control of which is now shared between the government’s Republican Guards and soldiers loyal to dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a top leader in the Bakil tribe.
Another powerful tribal leader, Sheikh Sadek al-Ahmar, also controls parts of the capital.
The area north of Arhab, where Wednesday’s battles took place, is the northern gateway to Sanaa and the main airport road. In late May, clashes forced a suspension of flights because access to the airport was blocked.
The Republican Guard has a strong presence in the area and has so far prevented Ahmar, the commander of the First Armoured Division who defected earlier this year, from calling in reinforcements from Yemen’s northern provinces where he has a strong following.
The new CIA director David Petraeus said in Washington on Tuesday that AQAP, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, has exploited unrest in the country and poses a growing danger.
Since May, AQAP has pushed back Yemeni government forces in the south and political upheaval has “helped AQAP co-opt local tribes and extend its influence,” the US intelligence chief said.