Security Forces, Tribesmen Clash In Yemen's Capital

In Yemen, state security forces and anti-government tribesmen engaged in running gun battles Wednesday through the streets of the capital. Michele Norris speaks with freelance journalist Nasser Arrabyee, about the increase in fighting in Yemen.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Yemen, state security forces and anti-government tribesmen engaged in running gun battles today through the streets of the capital city, Sanaa. President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule appears more fragile than ever with the country teetering on the brink of civil war. Today's violence comes after a tumultuous few days. In the southern city of Taiz, government troops fired on anti-government protesters, and Islamist militants seized control of the coastal city of Zinjibar.

To help us make sense of what's happening in Yemen, we're joined now by Nasser Arrabyee. He's been covering the events in Yemen for The New York Times. And he's in Sanaa right now.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. NASSER ARRABYEE (Journalist, The New York Times): You're most welcome.

NORRIS: What's the latest you're hearing about the fighting there in the capital, and can you help us understand who's engaged in these battles?

Mr. ARRABYEE: Well, the clashes here in the Yemeni capital right now are between the tribesmen loyal to tribal leader who is opposing President Saleh and the security forces loyal to the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

NORRIS: And what about the nature of the fighting? Are we talking about street battles?

Mr. ARRABYEE: Yes. In fact, it's now one week since these clashes started and more than 150 people were killed so far. All kinds of weapons are used; artillery, RPGs and machine guns from the tribes.

This situation is getting worse and worse because there is possibility that the defected troops might get involved soon. And when these defected troops get involved in such battles, I think Yemen will be in an all out civil war.

NORRIS: You talked about defecting troops, and it sounds like many people there are watching the generals very closely. A number of those powerful generals have broken with the president, but some are still loyal to him. Could that be the tipping point, if more of these top leaders in the military break ranks and actually join the opposition?

Mr. ARRABYEE: I would say everything here is divided. Everything is defective. The tribesmen are divided, and the opposition are divided. And the troops - the army is divided. For example, the tribesmen, the Hashid tribe, which is the most powerful tribe, these tribesmen could turn overnight if, for example, the money is run out or if there is one who is stronger. But now, there is no tribe who's stronger.

So the situation is very difficult, but I think the decisive thing will be the international community or the outside of Yemen, ECC countries under the United States and Europe. Until now, their position is still with Saleh. They say that he should step down according to the ECC team.

NORRIS: The capital city, Sanaa, is densely populated. With all the fighting going on there in the streets, has there been an exodus out of the city?

Mr. ARRABYEE: Yes, of course. You know, I'm living in the southern part of the city, and almost every minute, I see people getting out of Sanaa.

NORRIS: A number of the Gulf States were actually involved in trying to broker these agreements. Can you give us a little bit of context? Why does stability in Yemen matter so much to the region?

Mr. ARRABYEE: I think Yemen matters so much to the Gulf and to the international community because of a lot of things. For example, the al-Qaida branch here in Yemen is one of the most active branch may be in the world. Saudi Arabia, who leads the other Islamist countries, knows that if Yemen collapses into chaos, this means that Yemen will be a launch pad to strike Saudi Arabia from al-Qaida.

NORRIS: Nasser Arrabyee, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. ARRABYEE: Thank you very much. OK. Bye.

NORRIS: That's Nasser Arrabyee. He's been reporting recently on the events in Yemen for The New York Times.

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