- Associated Press - Thursday, June 2, 2011

SANAA, Yemen— Thousands of tribesmen threatened Thursday to descend on Yemen’s capital to join the battle against forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as the country slid deeper into an all-out fight for power. Government forces in Sanaa unleashed some of the heaviest shelling yet against their tribal rivals in a dramatic escalation of the conflict.

For months, youth-led protesters have tried to drive out Saleh peacefully. But their campaign has been overtaken and transformed into an armed showdown between Yemen’s two most powerful families, the president’s and the al-Ahmar clan. The al-Ahmar family heads the country’s strongest tribal confederation, which has vowed to topple Saleh after 33 years in power.

Their nearly two week-old battle in Sanaa raises a dangerous new potential in Yemen: that tribal fighting could metastasize and spread across the impoverished nation. Tribes hold deep loyalty among Yemen’s 25 million people, and the death of a member can easily draw relatives into a spiral of violence.

On Thursday, tribesman attacked security forces in the city of Taiz, south of the capital, apparently to avenge deaths of protesters there last week or to protect them from new crackdowns. Saleh’s security forces have cracked down hard on the street protesters, killing well over 100 since February, but until now tribal fighters had stayed out of the fray. Thursday’s attack suggests other tribes may see the fighting between Saleh and al-Ahmar as a sign it is time to get out their guns as well.

Deeply worrisome to the United States in particular is the possibility al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen — one of the terror network’s most active franchises in the world — will exploit the chaos.

In Sanaa, Saleh’s troops battered al-Ahmar’s positions with some of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the conflict. Gunbattles raged in the northern Hassaba district, the epicenter of the fighting that began May 23 and has since spread to other parts of the city. Troops set fire to the headquarters of a private TV station owned by one of the 10 al-Ahmar brothers.

Artillery and rocket fire also set alight the offices of a private domestic airline, several clothing warehouses and four houses close to the al-Ahmar family compound in the district.

There was no immediate word on deaths or casualties in the fighting, which has killed more than 160 people since it erupted.

The fighting forced Sanaa airport to close Wednesday night, but the Defense Ministry said in a statement it reopened Thursday and was operating normally. However, at least two flights to Sanaa were rerouted during the day to the southern port city of Aden, an Aden airport official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

The regime was also marshaling its forces: The Defense Ministry said for the first time in a statement that Special Forces units commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmed had joined the fight.

The units, which are among the best equipped and trained in Yemen’s armed forces, were moving to “liberate” buildings in Sanaa seized by al-Ahmar’s fighters, who have overrun more than a dozen ministries and buildings since fighting began.

In the mountains outside the capital, several thousand fighters loyal to al-Ahmar were camped out on the highway to Sanaa, prepared to move in an join the battle, according to a tribal leader, Mohammed al-Hamdani. They had moved out of the family’s ancestral heartland — the city of Amran, 28 miles (45 kilometers) northwest of Sanaa — under the command of Hussein al-Ahmar, the younger brother of the head of the Hashid confederation, Sadeq al-Ahmar, he said.

“We won’t leave al-Ahmar alone and will enter Sanaa to stand with him and to fight alongside him,” al-Hamdani said.

Government reinforcements, including the elite Republican Guard backed with tanks and armored vehicles, deployed to confront them, taking positions at a nearby military post. The two sides skirmished before dawn Thursday in hit-and-run attacks, and government warplanes swooped overhead with intimidating sonic booms.

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