US envoy embarks on mission to halt Yemen sliding into civil war

Fighting between forces loyal to the Yemeni President and one of the country's most influential tribes intensified yesterday as an American envoy flew to the region in an attempt to stop the country from plunging into a bloody civil war. At least 135 people have died in clashes in the capital, Sanaa, in the past 10 days, the bloodiest period since a popular uprising calling for political reform started in January.

Following the collapse of a short-lived truce between Sadeq al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, and the government, Yemen's peaceful uprising is in danger of descending into a messy tribal conflict with no end in sight.

Fierce street fighting engulfed the capital for a third consecutive day as fighters from outlying regions skirmished with regime loyalists as they attempted to march on Sanaa. As shelling and mortar fire crept perilously close to the city's main airport, incoming flights were briefly diverted.

Thousands more tribesmen were said to be heading towards the capital to bolster resistance there amid reports that the President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is reportedly holed up in his residence, appeared to be preparing for a heavy battle.

Witnesses reported seeing tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolling into the city from the south. Meanwhile, shops were shuttered and long queues formed at petrol stations as terrified residents fled Sanaa in their thousands. "It felt as if the artillery shells were flying next to my head... My wife, my daughter were screaming. It was horrible," Sadeq al-Lahbe, a resident, told Reuters before leaving the city. "There is no electricity, no water and violent strikes shaking the house."

As the violence escalated, Barack Obama's leading counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, headed to the region, visiting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, hoping to revive a pact brokered by Gulf countries that would see Mr Saleh step down after nearly 33 years in power. The US has nurtured Mr Saleh as a key ally in the war on terror, funding and aiding his efforts to fight a small but ambitious franchise of al-Qa'ida that has claimed the mountainous terrain of southern Yemen as its base.

But since becoming convinced that Mr Saleh cannot deliver promised reform, Washington has dropped its support of the embattled leader, and is now trying to ensure a peaceful transition that will prevent terror groups from thriving. The President has thrice reneged on the US-backed deal to stand aside, focusing his efforts instead on ensuring his political survival.