Explosions and street fighting grip Yemen capital

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 today.

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-Qa'ida militants and neighbour to the world's biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council that tried unsuccessfully to broker a power transfer deal, said it had evacuated its diplomatic staff from Yemen. Qatar, another GCC member, has also suspended most operations there.

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.

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-Qa'ida 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 Defence Ministry website said.

Yemen's state TV said troops had retaken a ministry building seized by the 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 armoured vehicles joining the opposition, suggesting more military defections from Saleh.