SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Hundreds of armed tribesmen have taken control of part of Yemen's second-largest city, Taiz, security officials said Wednesday.
The advance on Taiz showed the government's already tenuous control over the country has slipped further since President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded in a rocket attack on his compound in the capital Sanaa on Friday and left for medical care in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Saleh left as Yemen was edging closer to civil war.
Security officials said Taiz, a city of about a million located 150 miles (250 kilometers) south of Sanaa, was quiet Wednesday after two days of fighting during which troops loyal to the regime fought rival tribesmen trying to storm the presidential palace there. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Interior Ministry has denied that armed men are controlling Taiz, according to Yemen state TV.
Taiz has been the scene of some of the largest anti-Saleh protests since an uprising against his rule began in February — and also the scene of some of the fiercest crackdowns. Tribal fighters entered the city late last week and attacked government troops, apparently to protect protesters or to seek revenge for deaths in the crackdowns.
Violence has escalated since Saleh went to Saudi Arabia and left behind a power vacuum in the Arab world's poorest and most unstable country. The United States fears that this power vacuum will give freer rein to al-Qaida's branch in Yemen — one of the terror network's most active franchises which was behind two attempted terror attacks on U.S. targets.
In a rare positive development, a spokesman for the tribal chieftain whose followers fought loyalist troops in recent days in Sanaa said tribal forces have made a partial withdrawal from state buildings they had occupied during fighting last week with Saleh's forces.
The move, which covered the offices of the national news agency and at least one ministry, was being verified by a Yemeni mediation force, said the spokesman Abdul-Qawi al-Qaisi.
On a visit to Egypt on Wednesday, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said the United States was relieved by the relative calm that had returned to Sanaa after the Saudi-brokered cease-fire announced Saturday.
"I would certainly urge leaders from every side of this challenge to be calm and try to resolve the issues peacefully," Mullen said in a meeting with reporters. "This, again, in Yemen is about the people of Yemen, and it's about their repression and it's about what they don't have that they want for the future."
Mullen said the U.S. was particularly concerned about further chaos in the country giving militants a greater range of operations.
"In that regard, just as to the al-Qaida piece of it, it is incredibly dangerous and made that much more dangerous in the ongoing chaos," Mullen said.
Still, the challenges continue to pile up in the face of any attempt to bring peace and stability to Yemen. Muslim militants, for example, last week seized Zinjibar, provincial capital of the troubled Abyan province in southern Yemen, demonstrating their rising power. The Yemeni government claims the militants are connected to al-Qaida. But their true identity remains unclear. On Tuesday, the defense minister said its troops have killed at least 30 militants just outside Zinjibar.
There are numerous armed Islamic militants in Yemen, most of them not directly affiliated with the al-Qaida terror network, and many brand them as sometime-allies of Saleh's government.
Resentful of central government authority, many tribes have gained added powers since the uprising against Saleh began. Many members of these tribes, however, subscribe to a militant interpretation of Islam, so while they are not al-Qaida followers, they are unhappy about the secular trappings of Saleh's regime.
Divisions within the opposition present the country with another challenge, including failure to produce one figure behind whom the country could rally. Instead, traditional political parties — weak and co-opted by the regime over the years — and youth groups behind months of massive anti-Saleh street protests appear headed toward confrontation.
The groups want Saleh's regime dismantled and its stalwarts brought to justice. The parties prefer a much more gradual approach in line with proposals put forward by Gulf Arab nations.
Washington and Saudi Arabia are pushing Yemeni officials to seize the opportunity of Saleh's absence for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia to immediately begin a transfer of power and formation of a new government. The U.S. ambassador in Sanaa spoke with Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is acting head of state, to press the American view, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Tuesday.
U.S. officials said Tuesday that Saleh's wounds were more serious than initially thought, casting doubts on a quick return to Yemen and deeper instability ahead. Saleh has been in power for nearly 33 years.
In Taiz, the first attack on the palace was on Sunday and left four soldiers and one attacker dead. The tribesmen tried again the following day, but there were no casualties. However, four people, including three children, died when a shell fired by a tank near the palace landed in a nearby residential area.
In Sanaa, the attack on Saleh's palace compound Friday culminated two weeks of battles in the capital between government forces and opposition tribesmen determined to drive him from power. The fighting pushed the country closer to civil war after some four months of street protests by hundreds of thousands of Yemenis failed to oust Saleh.
On Wednesday, a key coalition of the anti-Saleh youth groups condemned the attack on the president's compound, saying it was contrary to the peaceful methods it has been using to force out Saleh's regime. The attack, however, was indicative of Saleh's loss of control over the country, spokeswoman Tawakul Karaman told a news conference.
The coalition, she said, intended to immediately start consultations with political groups to set up an interim council along with a government of technocrats to run the country until elections were held and a new constitution was drafted.
Karaman also warned Hadi that he has the choice of either supporting the "revolution" or be held to account as a member of the Saleh regime.
Toner, the State Department spokesman, said he was not sure how long Saleh would undergo treatment in Saudi Arabia, or whether he still planned to return. But he said Yemen needed to move forward in the meantime.
"We need to see all sides moving forward on a constructive basis," he said.
On Monday, Hadi said Saleh, in his late 60s, was improving after a series of operations in Saudi Arabia and would return home "within days." If Saleh were to return, it would almost certainly re-ignite the fighting in the capital, which is only barely being contained by a Saudi-brokered cease-fire.
But the revelations by U.S. officials suggested Saleh was in no condition to return soon. Three officials said Saleh had burns over 40 percent of his body and bleeding in his skull. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Yemeni officials have said Saleh suffered heavy burns on his face, neck and chest. One of the operations in Saudi Arabia was to remove wood fragments embedded in his chest.