Yemeni government forces clashed with supporters of a powerful tribe in central Sanaa on Friday, forcing residents to flee the area in fear of further fighting, witnesses said.
The clashes in the Hassaba district reflect the still tense standoff between forces loyal to ailing President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation, the al-Ahmar clan. Fighting between the two side in late May threatened to escalate into all-out war.
Witnesses said the government's elite Republican Guards were heavily deployed in Hassaba, positioning armored vehicles on one of the district's main roads and taking over the Communication Ministry. Supporters of the powerful tribal chief Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar were also on alert.
The al-Ahmar family has come out in support of the protest movement calling for Saleh to step down after 33 years in power. The protests began in earnest in February, but Saleh has clung to power.
The fighting erupted late Friday afternoon and lasted about half an hour. Residents reported hearing the crackle of machine-gun fire and a few explosions. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Fathi al-Azab, a district resident, said many families fled the area as clashes began at sundown, when Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
A government official said the country's vice president, Saleh's powerful son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guards, and the U.S. ambassador immediately made contact to mediate a troop pullout and prevent the violence from escalating. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
In late May, the government and al-Ahmar fighters battled in Sanaa's streets for nearly two-weeks after government troops were accused of attacking the compound of the al-Ahmar's leader. A negotiated truce brought an end to those clashes.
But relations remain tense. A June attack on Saleh's presidential compound left the Yemeni leader badly injured, and the government initially blamed al-Ahmar. Saleh is still recuperating from his injuries in Saudi Arabia.
Saleh's absence and the continued street protests calling for his ouster have dealt a serious blow to security in Yemen. Further aggravating the tense relations between al-Ahmar and the president's supporters, al-Ahmar announced last week a new tribal alliance that includes members of another powerful tribe, and is supported by a senior defecting military general, who was once one of Saleh's closest aides.
Al-Ahmar said the alliance no longer accepts Saleh as Yemen's ruler , and said the tribal forces will fill the security void in everyday life the has opened up as Saleh's forces focus on maintaining the regime's grip on power. He also said the tribes will provide protection to the protesters against the government crackdown, pitting the tribes against the government forces.