Yemeni President survives rocket attack as bloody showdown looms

The Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, survived a rocket attack on his presidential compound yesterday, an escalation that could pave the way for a bloody showdown between warring regime loyalists and tribesmen.

Mr Saleh was praying in the mosque, aides said, when a shell landed inside the compound, injuring him and killing three members of the elite Republican Guard. Yemen's Deputy Prime Minister was also gravely injured in the explosion.

An opposition news bulletin initially reported that the Yemeni leader had been killed, but the rumour was quickly scotched by Mr Saleh's aides.

Speaking after the attack, Mr Saleh blamed an "outlaw gang" of his tribal foes – the powerful Hashid tribe led by Sadeq al-Ahmar, who has been battling Saleh loyalists in Sanaa.

"I salute our armed forces and the security forces for standing up firmly to confront this challenge by an outlaw gang that has nothing to do with the so-called youth revolution," he said.

The audacious strike at the heart of the regime raises questions about Mr Saleh's ability to maintain his hold on power in the face of mounting challenges that threaten to tip the country into civil war. What began as a popular uprising against Mr Saleh's rule has turned into a bitter and messy tribal conflict between the government and one the Hashid. In the past 10 days, the two sides have waged fierce battles on the streets of Sana'a, killing at least 160 people from both sides and prompting terrified residents to flee the capital.

Fighting intensified yesterday when government forces bombarded the homes of members of the al-Ahmar family in southern Sana'a, an area that had previously seen little fighting. As the first shells were fired, there were chaotic scenes in central Sana'a, with residents darting for cover, some firing their rifles randomly into the air. Customers heading into local restaurants raced back to their cars. "The war is coming. Get out of here," shouted one newspaper vendor.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of anti-regime demonstrators who have protested daily in Sana'a braved the shelling to mass on the streets, and coffins containing victims from previous days' fighting were borne aloft through the crowd.

State television said Mr Saleh was "in good health" following the attack, but an official later said he had been moved to a Defence Ministry hospital.

The al-Ahmar family denied any involvement in the attack, accusing the President of orchestrating it himself to justify an escalation of the fighting. Analysts predicted that the attack would provoke a lethal response from the regime.

Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: "Yemen's military and security forces are not geared towards de-escalating a conflict. They only know one way – to ratchet it up."

The US immediately appealed to both sides to call an immediate ceasefire. Washington has watched the deteriorating situation in Yemen with alarm. A backer of Mr Saleh until two months ago, it has poured millions of dollars into the country to help bolster the fight against a small but ambitious branch of al-Qa'ida, based in Yemen's lawless southern provinces.

In recent weeks, it has backed a proposal from the Gulf states to get Mr Saleh to step down under an immunity deal, which the Yemeni ruler has rejected three times.

34 killed in Syria protests


Syrian security forces opened fire yesterday during one of the largest anti-government protests so far in the 10-week uprising, and activists said at least 34 people were killed in the city of Hama, where thousands died in a failed 1982 revolt against the regime.

President Bashar al-Assad's forces renewed their assault on towns seen as key to the demonstrations calling for an end to his family's 40-year rule. The regime also cut internet services across most of the country, a potentially dire blow for a movement that organises protests on Facebook pages.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said tens of thousands of people were protesting in Hama when security forces opened fire. He said the Hama protest was among the largest yet in the uprising.