Tribal leaders back student-led anti-Saleh protesters in Yemen

Dozens of chieftains of Bakeel, the second most powerful tribe in Yemen after the Hashid confederation, have joined the protests against the president, and eight military officers, including a brigadier general, also sided with the protesters yesterday.

SANA'A // Tribal chiefs have joined the protests against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, leading to the possibility of Yemen's crisis descending into tribal warfare.

Violence continued across the country yesterday, with three soldiers killed and dozens of anti-government protesters injured.

It was the third straight day of violent clampdowns on the mostly student-led protests against the president. At the weekend seven people were killed and hundreds injured across the country.

In Marib province yesterday, a protester stabbed and critically wounded Naji al Zaidi, the governor, after security forces fired on protesters.

Violence also spread yesterday to the tribal Marib and al Jawf provinces.

Dozens of chieftains of Bakeel, the second most powerful tribe in Yemen after the Hashid confederation, joined the protests against the president, who has been in power for 32 years.

The tribal leaders visited the site of the Sana'a protest and promised to protect the protesters, who have been subject to several violent crackdowns by the police and government supporters.

"We will defend the revolution with all powers we have. We also warn of attacking the peaceful protesters," said Sheikh Amin al Okaimi, addressing a crowd of about 7,000 in Sana'a.

Several tribal chiefs from Hashid had joined the protests last month. Mr Saleh is a member of the Sanhen clan, one of nine that make up the Hashid.

The International Crisis Group said in a report released last week that "the spectre of descent into tribal warfare makes many Yemenis nervous. Rules of the game are in flux, presenting an uncommon opportunity for serious reform, but also for violent conflict."

A former member of Mr Saleh's cabinet, Mohammed al Haweri, joined the protest yesterday after he resigned as deputy minister of development and international co-operation.

Eight military officers, including a brigadier general, also sided with the protesters yesterday.

In a statement published Sunday evening in local media, 20 Zaidi Shiite clerics called on Yemenis to join the anti-Saleh protests, urging the army and police to protect the protesters and join them in toppling the "corrupt and oppressive regime".

The clerics warned against the use of excessive force in squashing protests. Zaidism is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The Zaidis are mostly from the north and a group of them have engaged the government in an on-again off-again armed conflict since 2004.

Support by the tribal chiefs and clerics for the protest, plus the resignation of several officials and MPs from the ruling party, put Mr Saleh in an increasingly difficult position, according to media reports.

Mr Saleh dismissed Hamud al Hitar, his minister of endowments and religious affairs, on Sunday and replaced him with Hamud Obad, the minister of youths and sports, whose position was taken over by Aref al Zoka, a leading politician in the ruling party. Local media reports, however, said Mr al Hitar actually resigned in protest against the violence used against demonstrators. Protesters have accused both Mr Obad and Mr al Zoka of leading "ruling party thugs" against protesters.

More than 30 protesters have been killed in several weeks of escalating street fighting. An officer and two soldiers were killed yesterday, according to the state Saba news agency, as clashes broke out in al Masloob district of the northern al Jawf province, which borders Saudi Arabia.

In the city of Al Jawf, 20 protesters and two government supporters were wounded when demonstrators stormed the municipal building and took control.

In central Marib province, where several international companies have oil and gasd fields, dozens were injured when police and the governor's guards fired live bullets to disperse a crowd of thousands at a sit-in. Mr al Zaidi the governor, critically wounded by stabbing, was reportedly flown to the capital to receive medical treatment. He was visited by Mr Saleh at the military hospital, the state media reported.

"Members of the opposition stabbed the governor and wounded three others as security tried to stop protesters from inciting chaos," the interior ministry website quoted an unnamed security official as saying.

The ministry blamed the opposition for the violence in al Jawf where it said two security vehicles were set ablaze.

The Joint Meeting Parties, an opposition coalition of six parties, denied that accusation. "What is happening now in Yemen is not a battle between the government and the opposition as the regime alleges, but rather between an uprising people and a corrupt regime," said Mohammed Kahtan, an opposition spokesman.

Mr Kahtan said a protester argued with the governor after his guards opened fire on the protesters. He urged all protesters to maintain self-restraint.

In Taiz, south of Sana'a, police, including snipers on the roofs of houses, fired live bullets to break up thousands of protesters, most of whom were students. Three people were injured, according to Bushra al Maktari, a protest organiser.

Tens of thousands also protested in several other cities across the country.

In Sana'a, protests continued yesterday after two days of violence in which one was killed and hundreds injured when police backed by armed government supporters attacked the protesters on Saturday and Sunday.

Soldiers and armoured vehicles and government supporters controlled Change Square, where more than 30,000 protesters have been camped out for weeks. The protesters said they were expecting an assault even as tribal chiefs, clerics and opposition parties warned Mr Saleh of the grave consequences of any such move.

"We were expecting an attack at any minute, but everybody here was ready. Some came after bidding farewell to their families, preferring to die than to leave the square," said Mohammed Saeed, a protester.

"Leave, leave, you serial killer," they chanted.

Mr Saleh said last month he would not seek re-election after his term ends in 2013 and would not try to transfer power to his son.

He announced on Thursday that he planned to draft a new constitution with a parliamentary system. The proposal was immediately rejected by the opposition and the protesters after Mr Saleh refused an opposition demand that he agree to leave power this year.