SANA'A // Dissident Yemeni generals yesterday accused the embattled president of surrendering Abyan province to "terrorists" after suspected al Qa'eda militants took its capital, and called for others to defect.
A security official said that more than 200 suspected al Qa'eda gunmen have wrested control of the southern city of Zinjibar, Abyan's capital, in fighting that has left 21 dead.
In "Statement Number One", the generals led by General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar accused president Ali Abdullah Saleh of "surrendering Abyan to an armed terrorist group" and called "on the forces of the army to join the peaceful popular revolution".
They also called on the army to fight the "terrorists" in Abyan.
Several generals, including General Ahmar who commands troops that control part of Sana'a, have pledged support for protesters calling for Mr Saleh to quit.
But the Republican Guards and other elite units commanded by Mr Saleh's family members have remained loyal.
The security official and witnesses said Zinjibar had fallen to militants who may be al Qa'eda fighters.
The suspected al Qa'eda fighters "were able to gain control of the city of Zinjibar … and took over all government facilities", except for the headquarters of the 25th mechanised brigade, which is besieged by militants, the security official said.
Witnesses said gunmen were still battling members of the besieged brigade.
A brigade officer reached by telephone said: "We will fight until the last bullet, and we will not surrender to the gunmen who killed our colleagues."
A medic said that five civilians were killed and 15 wounded in shelling between the brigade and suspected al Qa'eda fighters yesterday.
Residents reported heavy fighting in the city on Friday and Saturday and said the attackers had freed dozens of prisoners from the main jail in Zinjibar.
One witness said on condition of anonymity that the gunmen executed soldiers who surrendered and that residents were not able to bury them.
"Most of the residents of Zinjibar have left," said another.
Nazir Ahmed Said, one of those who fled to Aden, the south's main city, said he left because Zinjibar "is under the control of gunmen who say they are from al Qa'eda".
The security official estimated that more than 200 militants had attacked the city.
"The lack of concern from the authorities is unfortunate," he said, adding that "the leadership in Abyan province left the area before it exploded".
He was among the last security officials to quit the city, he said.
Five soldiers and a civilian were killed on Friday, two other security officials said, and Zinjibar residents said they found the bodies of 10 soldiers, bringing the toll from the fighting there to at least 21.
One official said that another two soldiers were killed on Friday in clashes with suspected al Qa'eda fighters in the town of Loder, also in Abyan province.
In a statement, the Common Forum parliamentary opposition coalition blamed Mr Saleh for the situation in Zinjibar, but said he had "delivered Zinjibar to groups that he has formed and armed, to continue to utilise the spectre of al Qa'eda to frighten regional and international parties".
Mr Saleh has since January faced protests calling for him to quit office after almost 33 years in power.
On May 22, he refused to sign a Gulf Co-operation Council-sponsored accord that would have seen him cede power within 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
The following day, fighting erupted in Sana'a between security forces loyal to Mr Saleh and followers of opposition tribal chief Sheikh Sadeq al Ahmar, who heads the powerful Hashed federation of tribes.
Sheikh Ahmar's fighters seized various government buildings during the clashes, which lasted from Monday to Thursday, but yesterday began vacating them following tribal mediation, according to source involved in the negotiations.
Tribesmen loyal to Sheikh Ahmar have "begun the evacuation of government buildings that they control and are surrendering them to the mediation committee," said Sheikh Abdullah Badr al-Din.
"The handover of the building of the ministry of local administration has been completed and the evacuation of the remaining buildings will continue," he said.
A number of buildings were heavily damaged in Al Hasaba area where the fighting was centred, including Sheikh Ahmar's residence, the interior ministry, the official news agency Saba and the offices of the Yemenia national airline, a correspondent in Sana'a said.
"We fled Al Hasaba during the fighting. I came back to take clothes from home and I found corpses in the street behind our house," a woman who identified herself as Umm Ahmed said.
In other areas of Sana'a, roadblocks were set up by forces loyal to the president and by dissident army units, with both deploying heavy armour and machine guns.