Violence escalates in Sana'a as Saleh loyalists battle with Yemen's largest tribe

President Saleh apologised to the leader of the UAE yesterday after armed Saleh loyalists surrounded the Emirati embassy, trapping the UAE ambassador, the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council and other diplomats inside.

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SANA'A // Violence escalated in the streets of Sana'a yesterday as hundreds of forces loyal to the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh clashed with members of Yemen's largest and most influential tribe.

Witnesses said about 18 people were killed and 75 wounded in a flurry of machine-gun fire and grenade explosions outside the home of Sheikh Sadeq Abdullah Ahmar, the leader of the Hashid tribal federation and a former close ally of the president who fell out with him in March. There was also fighting near the interior ministry and the offices of the state-run news agency. The casualty toll could not be independently confirmed.

President Saleh apologised to the leader of the UAE yesterday after armed Saleh loyalists surrounded the Emirati embassy, trapping the UAE ambassador, the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council and other diplomats inside.

The three-hour siege of the UAE embassy by a crowd of men armed with guns, knives and swords occurred on Sunday after Mr Saleh balked at signing a GCC-brokered deal that would see him cede the presidency after 32 years in power. It ended when at least six envoys, including the ambassadors of the European Union, Britain and the United States - were flown or driven to safety and government security forces intervened to break up the mob.

Mr Saleh yesterday phoned Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the president of the UAE, to apologise for the danger to the country's embassy, reported WAM, the UAE state news agency.

An official in the office of Yemen's president called the actions taken by the crowd "irresponsible and unacceptable." The UAE, its leaders and its ambassador were not targeted, the Yemeni News Agency quoted the official as saying.

With Mr Saleh's third last-minute refusal to sign the transition deal, the opposition vowed yesterday to step up street protests but said it was determined to avoid the violence that threatened to engulf the capital.

Mohammed al Qahtan, a spokesman for the Common Forum coalition of parliamentary opposition parties, said: "Our only option is to intensify the peaceful revolt and continue to choke the regime, then finish it."

Mr Saleh on Sunday accused his opponents of dragging the country into civil war, but Mr Qahtan and other critics of the president suggested that the siege of the UAE diplomatic mission and yesterday's clashes were orchestrated attempts by Mr Saleh to stay in power and to buttress his public assertions that only he stands between stability and chaos in this nation of 24 million people.

"The regime is trying to push the situation toward violence, but it will not push the country into war," Mr Qahtan said.

The European Union, meeting in Brussels, said it was following events in Yemen with "extreme concern." It condemned Mr Saleh's refusal to sign the transition accord and said the GCC's efforts "have the full backing of the EU."

The French foreign ministry excoriated Mr Saleh. "This new turnaround is irresponsible and unacceptable," it said in a statement. "We once again urge the Yemeni president to sign this agreement without further delay, as it is the only viable way to resolve the crisis."

The Yemeni capital yesterday bore all the hallmarks of a city careening towards more bloodshed.

Thousands of armed pro-Saleh supporters set up road blocks to search cars and question drivers, and the main roads to the provinces were closed. Fearing looting, most shopowners shut their doors. Uniformed police and security forces were seen looking on as the fighting raged outside Mr Ahmar's home.

"We have orders not to interfere when the gunmen are in the streets," said Mohammed Jameeli, a police officer assigned to the capital's central security forces.

The armed men in civilian clothing were not loose rabble, said Ahmed Bahri of the opposition coalition, Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).

"The gunmen are under control, and this is a message from President Saleh: It's either him as ruler, or chaos and war," Mr Bahri said.

Ahmed Soufi, Mr Saleh's media adviser, denied that the violence was choreographed by the government, saying supporters of the president have the right to express their support.

Mr Saleh, he said, faces a dilemma. "If he signs the GCC proposal, his millions of followers will reject it and use arms to insist he stays in power," Mr Soufi said. "If he does not sign, he angers the international community. It's very difficult for the president."

The GCC-backed deal signed by the JMP but spurned by Mr Saleh on Sunday would have required him to leave office within 30 days, rather than in 2013 when his presidential term ends. It also would have given him immunity from prosecution. He refused to sign it after the opposition defied his call for them to be present at his palace to witness it.

Afterward, the GCC suspended its diplomatic efforts, while Mr Saleh accused his opponents of intransigence.

"If they remain stubborn, we will confront them everywhere with all possible means," he said in a televised address. "If they don't bow, and want to take the country into a civil war, let them be responsible for it and for the blood that was shed and that will be shed if they insist on their stupidity."

* With additional reporting from Hakim Almasmari in Sana'a and Agence France-Presse