SANAA (AFP) – Yemen’s embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded on Friday along with his premier and other officials as shells struck a mosque in the presidential palace compound, a security official told AFP.
The mosque attack came as fighting that has killed scores of people in north Sanaa spread to the south of the capital and the poverty-stricken Arabian Peninsula country teetered towards civil war.
Four officers of the elite Republican Guard were killed when two shells crashed into the mosque, the official said.
Saleh himself “was lightly wounded in the attack” on the palace mosque in Sanaa, a security official said. The extent of Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar’s injuries were not immediately clear.
In an assurance to the Yemeni public, state television later said that the president was “well.”
A source close to the presidency told AFP that Yemen’s deputy prime minister for defence and security, General Rashad al-Alimi was “critically wounded and hospitalised.”
The attack was blamed by the authorities on dissident tribesmen loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, who have been locked in fierce clashes with government forces in north Sanaa since Tuesday.
“The Ahmar (tribe) have crossed all red lines,” said Tareq al-Shami, spokesman for the ruling General People’s Congress.
Earlier Friday, Yemeni troops, who have deployed heavy weaponry in their battle against the tribesmen, sent a shell crashing into the home of Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, a leader of the biggest opposition party and brother of Sheikh Sadiq.
Three shells also struck near the university campus in the city centre where opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been holding a sit-in since late January.
After a brief lull at dawn, artillery and heavy machine-gun fire rocked the Al-Hassaba neighbourhood of northern Sanaa where Sheikh Sadiq has his base, witnesses said.
They said that during the fighting the headquarters of national airline Yemenia was burnt down and the offices of Suhail TV, a channel controlled by Sheikh Sadiq, destroyed.
There was no immediate word on casualties from the latest fighting as medics said ambulance crews were unable to access the battlegrounds.
Even as the fighting raged into a fourth straight day, rival demonstrators took to the streets of Sanaa, witnesses said.
Hundreds of anti-Saleh demonstrators gathered at Change Square, near the university, for a day of solidarity with Taez, south of Sanaa, where security forces this week smashed a months-long sit-in protest at a cost of more than 50 lives.
Troops loyal to dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar were deployed to protect the protesters, although positions held by the rebel army units also came under artillery fire.
At the same time, as on past Fridays, the Muslim day of weekly prayers, a large crowd of Saleh supporters gathered at a square near the presidential palace for a rally broadcast on state television.
In Taez, security forces backed by Republican Guards fired in the air to prevent youths from rallying in Tahrir Square for Friday prayers, forcing them to gather in small groups at nearby mosques, an AFP photographer said.
More than 60 people have now been confirmed killed in the fighting in the capital since a fragile truce collapsed on Tuesday between Ahmar’s heavily armed tribesmen and troops loyal to Saleh.
At the same time, Saleh, who has been in power in Sanaa since 1978, has faced nationwide protests against his rule for the past four months.
When Saleh last month refused to sign a plan by Yemen’s Arab neighbours in the Gulf for him to step down in return for immunity, Ahmar’s fighters seized public buildings across Sanaa, sparking clashes with troops loyal to the president.
A truce announced last week lasted just four days.
On the diplomatic front, Gulf Cooperation Council head Abdellatif Zayani said on Friday he was keeping up efforts to seek a negotiated settlement, as Saleh’s camp continued to send out mixed signals on whether he would accept the plan.
And the White House said Thursday its top counter-terrorism aide John Brennan, currently on a visit to the Gulf, was working with US allies in the region to build pressure on Saleh to immediately cede power.
Nationwide, more than 200 demonstrators have been killed since the protests first erupted, according to an AFP tally based on reports from medics.