Street battles in Sana'a between Saleh loyalists and tribal guards

Nine killed as machine guns and mortar fire rock Yemen's capital while opposition warns attacks could spark a civil war.

SANA'A // Yemeni loyalist forces fought street battles with guards from a powerful tribal federation whose leader has sided with protesters demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule, witnesses said today.

The opposition warned that such attacks by loyalists, which residents said targeted the mansion of tribal leader Sadiq al Ahmar, could spark a civil war.

At least nine people were killed in the clashes, which dimmed prospects for a political solution to a transition of power tussle following a nearly four-month-old revolt inspired by protests that swept aside the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

"The clashes were violent. The sound of machinegun and mortar fire could be heard everywhere. I saw smoke rising from the entrance of the interior ministry," one witness told Reuters.

Nine people were killed and 30 wounded "because of the aggression launched by the Ahmars and their gangs", an official told the defence ministry website, without giving details.

The clashes came after the collapse on Sunday of a transition deal mediated by the GCC that President Saleh was to have signed that would have given him immunity from prosecution.

The shooting, in the sandbagged streets surrounding a fortified mansion belonging to the wealthy and politically powerful al Ahmar clan, pitted loyalist forces against guards of Sadiq al Ahmar, head of the Hashed tribal federation from which Saleh also hails.

"The attack on [al Ahmar's] house is a symptom of the hysteria experienced by President Saleh and his entourage and their insistence on engulfing the country in a civil war," the opposition coalition said in a statement.

Several mediators, including a security police head, were injured in the attack on the house, an opposition leader said.

Mr al Ahmar's house and the adjacent residence which belongs to a relative, another tribal leader, were damaged in the attacks, residents said.

Four tribal guards were killed, and six other people were wounded, an opposition leader said. Fighting in the same area of the capital on Monday killed seven people, among them a bystander, a police officer and five tribal gunmen.

The government accused Mr al Ahmar's men of igniting the clashes on Monday by firing on a school and the headquarters of state news agency Saba. Mr al Ahmar's office said government forces opened fire when his guards prevented them from entering a school where Mr al Ahmar said Saleh loyalists were stockpiling weapons.

Early on Tuesday, tribal mediators were holding talks in the Aal hmar house to try to bring an end to the fighting, a source in Mr al Ahmar's office said. But the government said the mediation had not brought a resolution.

"The al Ahmar sons and their gang turned on the mediation and fired rockets and bullets heavily on government installations and citizens' homes," the defence ministry said.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, which spearheaded the transition deal that President Saleh has three times rebuffed at the last minute, later said it was suspending it due to a "lack of suitable conditions".

In Riyadh, Abdullatif al Zayani, the GCC's secretary-general, called for an immediate end to the fighting and suggested he could relaunch his mediation efforts.

"I'm always ready to visit [Yemen] if the visit will help the interests of the Yemeni people," he told reporters.

The pan-Arab Asharq al -Awsat daily said that Saudi Arabia was still hoping the deal could be signed at the "earliest opportunity". A Saudi foreign ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment.

President Saleh, playing on Western fears of chaos, blamed the opposition for the deal's collapse and said that if a civil war erupted "they will be responsible for it and the bloodshed".

While President Saleh has backed out of previous deals aimed at easing him out of power, Sunday's turnabout appeared to be among the most forceful, coming after loyalist gunmen trapped Western and Arab diplomats in the United Arab Emirates embassy for hours.