SANAA (Reuters) - Renewed fighting in Yemen’s capital between a powerful tribal group and President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces has killed at least 19 people this week and rocked Sanaa with explosions, officials said on Wednesday.
World powers have been pressing Saleh to sign a Gulf-led deal to end his three-decade rule and stem spreading chaos in unstable Yemen, a haven for al Qaeda militants and neighbor to the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.
Kuwait, part of the Gulf Cooperation Council that tried unsuccessfully to broker a power transfer deal, said it had evacuated its diplomats from Yemen. Qatar, another GCC member, also suspended most operations there. Italy has shut its mission, citing threats against Western embassies.
Witnesses said they heard several blasts but were not sure of the cause or damage near the Hasaba district, the focal point of fighting last week that killed at least 115 people and pushed the country closer to civil war.
“There are very powerful explosions. Sounds like missiles or mortars. May God protect us,” a Hasaba resident said.
After a lull of several hours, large blasts began shaking northern Sanaa and nearby areas late on Wednesday, residents said. There was no immediate report of casualties or damage.
This week, there have been three main flashpoints in the country — the fighting in the capital, government troops gunning down protesters in Taiz in the south and a battle with al Qaeda and Islamic militants in the coastal city of Zinjibar.
Residents also reported overnight fighting near Sanaa airport, which was closed briefly last week during skirmishes between Saleh’s forces and opponents within the powerful Hashed tribal confederation, who are led by Sadeq al-Ahmar.
Fourteen soldiers were killed in overnight fighting with the tribesmen, the Defense Ministry website said.
State TV said troops had retaken a number of government buildings seized by tribesmen and found several bodies inside.
Medical officials told Reuters at least five other people had been killed in the recent fighting, which may have entered a new phase with some troops in armored vehicles joining the opposition, suggesting more military defections from Saleh.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Saleh received “a very good offer” from Gulf Arab nations to end the crisis and suggested she saw no hope of a resolution without his departure.
“We cannot expect this conflict to end unless President Saleh and his government move out of the way to permit the opposition and civil society to begin a transition to political and economic reform,” Clinton told a news conference.
In a statement issued partly in response to Clinton’s remarks, a Yemeni government spokesman said Saleh was prepared to sign the Gulf-sponsored power transition plan and that “the timing of the signing would be set soon through consultation between Yemen and the GCC,” state media reported.
Saleh has exasperated his rich Gulf Arab neighbors by three times agreeing to step down, only to renege at the last minute.
Some military leaders broke away from Saleh in March after his troops fired on protesters calling for an end to his 33-year-old rule. Yemen is on the brink of financial ruin, with about a third of its 23 million people facing chronic hunger.
The political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in a report the most likely outcome is that Saleh leaves through a political deal he brokers from a position of weakness, or is ousted by force by breakaway military units and tribal leaders.
“Saleh leaving power early does not result in a functional Yemeni state that can reassert control over the country in the short term,” the report said.
The president’s close relatives, who control Yemen’s most lucrative sources of revenue and state assets, are pressuring him not to give up power, a diplomatic source told Reuters.
Analysts are worried that instability in Yemen, sitting on a shipping lane that carries about 3 million barrels of oil a day, could embolden a local al Qaeda wing which has attempted attacks on the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Locals and Yemeni troops have been fighting to recapture the coastal city of Zinjibar, which was taken over by several hundred al Qaeda and Islamist militants at the weekend.
Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden, Khaled al-Mahdi in Taiz, Sara Anabtawi and Firouz Sedarat in Dubai, Eman Goma in Kuwait and Saleh al-Shaibani in Muscat and the Washington Bureau; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Jon Hemming