SANAA // At least three people died when hundreds of Republican Guard troops under the command of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's son attacked Yemen's defence ministry yesterday.
The heavily armed soldiers encircled the ministry in the early hours, blocked all access and sparked a shoot-out with government troops sent with reinforcements to defend the building. By late afternoon government troops had forced the Guard forces to retreat and evacuate the area.
The attack came hours after the president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, left the country for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit in Saudi Arabia.
A week ago Mr Hadi ordered the restructuring of the military, including reducing the number of units under the command of Mr Saleh's son, Brig Gen Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Some troops were moved to a new unit called the Presidential Protective Forces, under Mr Hadi's authority. It will also include a brigade from the First Armoured Division led by Gen Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, who defected to the anti-Saleh opposition last year.
Opposition political factions had been demanding that Gen Saleh be relieved from duty. They had threatened to withdraw from the government unless the armed forces were restructured.
A defence ministry official said yesterday's incident was the latest in a series of attacks by supporters of the former president in an effort to destabilise the country.
Witnesses said gunmen in civilian dress, who accompanied the Republican Guard also attacked Yemen’s central bank, near the ministry. Nearby banks were shut down amid fears that the gunmen would storm them.
Residents were trapped in their homes during a fierce exchange of gunfire at the defence ministry.
Arif Al Hamdani, who lives near the building, said: “We wanted to leave our home but we are surrounded. Three bullets entered through our home windows but I thank God my family was not hurt.”
The spokesman for the country's largest opposition bloc said the attack showed that that Yemen was far from solving its political disputes.
“The UN is watching Yemen fall apart while refusing to sanction those behind the country’s instability,” said Ahmed Al Bahri of the Joint Meeting Parties.
“Two weeks ago the ministry of interior is taken over by gunmen and today the defence ministry is under siege and the world is silent.”
On July 31, a group of police officers occupied the interior ministry and clashed with other forces in a gunfight in which 15 people died.
Yemen’s security committee blamed the assault on “a group of inciters among the ranks of the police force aiming to undermine security”, and the government accused those behind the attack of “seeking to spread chaos in a desperate attempt to undermine the political process in Yemen”.
Yemen’s prime minister Muhammad Basindwa yesterday criticised the countries who sponsored the deal in which Mr Saleh stepped down from power in February, for not doing enough to ensure a peaceful transition.
“The sponsors of the deal have not responded properly to the obstructions and problems by the foes of the political reconciliation,” he said.
But the UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, said that sanctions, such as freezing of assets and travel bans, would be imposed against any officials who attempt to hinder the political settlement in Yemen.
* With additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press