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Clashes Spread Across Yemen, Raising Fears of Civil War

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Clashes are continuing across Yemen in the growing conflict over President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s refusal to step down. At least 15 people were reportedly killed in overnight clashes in the capital city of Sana’a. Dozens have been killed since Monday, when artillery explosions and machine-gun fire shattered a tenuous ceasefire that lasted less than 48 hours. We get a report from Iona Craig of The Times of London, who is in Sana’a. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn right now to Yemen, where anti-government protests are swelling after President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to follow through on his promise to resign. Medical workers say at least 41 people have been killed in the capital, Sana’a, since Monday, when artillery explosions and machine-gun fire shattered a tenuous ceasefire that lasted less than 48 hours. Forces loyal to Saleh were deployed last night, where they battled with rebel tribesmen. Flights to the airport have been suspended as fighting rages in the city.

Meanwhile, 20 people were killed in the southern city of Taiz after Saleh’s forces attacked a protest camp in the city center. Today witnesses told the AFP that protesters in Taiz have taken up arms against government forces loyal to the president. They say they remain undeterred despite the recent government crackdown.

PROTESTER: [translated] The situation in terms of change is that the youths’ hopes are raised high, even though yesterday there was a gun attack on Adel Street and elsewhere. You should notice that those people are unbelievable. We have not seen anything like this before. Those protesters are not scared, and they can sleep under gunfire and rockets flying above their head.

AMY GOODMAN: According to Al Jazeera, more than 350 people have been killed in Yemen since nationwide protests calling Saleh to end his 33-year rule started about four months ago. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a news conference Wednesday the violence will only end when Saleh leaves the country.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: We cannot expect this conflict to end unless President Saleh and his government move out of the way to permit the opposition and civil society to begin a transition to political and economic reform.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She repeated her support for a proposal from the Gulf Cooperation Council that promises Saleh immunity from prosecution if he resigns.

AMY GOODMAN: But Saleh has refused to step down. He has repeatedly used addresses on state television to warn that, should he be forced to relinquish power, al-Qaeda will sweep in and take over the entire country. Opposition leaders have accused Saleh of deliberately allowing the southern coastal city of Zinjibar to fall to militants to try to show how chaotic Yemen would be without him.

For more on Yemen, we’re going to the capital, Sana’a, to Iona Craig. She’s with The Times of London. She’s based in the Yemeni capital.

Iona, welcome to Democracy Now! What is happening there now?

IONA CRAIG: Today and all of last night, we’ve had continued heavy fighting in the north of Sana’a between the tribesmen of the Al Ahmar family and government troops. There’s been heavy shelling once again, loud explosions that can be heard all the way across Sana’a. And heavy fighting has continued throughout the day today. I mean, it’s almost surprising that there’s much of northern Sana’a, the half of the district where this fighting has been going on, left to shell, considering the amount of explosions that have been ongoing for the last 24 hours, at least.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Iona, there have been some reports that the government has cut off electricity and water to some neighborhoods of the capital where the opposition is strongest. Any sense of what the situation is with basic services to the population?

IONA CRAIG: We’ve been suffering from power cuts here for many weeks. Large parts of the capital are restricted to around four hours of electricity a day. That’s mostly been as a result of tribesmen to the east attacking power lines and electricity supplies.

Also, water has become a major problem here, as well. Since the fighting started in half of the last week, the price of water has more than doubled overnight. Much of the city here relies on water being transported in rather than receiving a main supply. And so, many of the locals have become quite upset and rowdy about this. In fact, very close to where I live, they started up a roadblock overnight in protest at rising water prices and the access to water, as well. Security forces had opened fire on them to disperse the crowd. But certainly, the issues of water and power are great here, and we’re also suffering from a diesel and petrol shortage, as well. So, tension is certainly high in Sana’a, and certainly in the north of the capital it’s very violent.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about these latest few days where well over — it’s believed more than 40 people have been killed in —- talk about Sana’a, Taiz, the Marib, the oil— and gas-producing province, what’s happening, and why Saleh is holding on.

IONA CRAIG: Yes, in Taiz, in particular, where the anti-government protest movement had the longest-running tented sit-in across the country and has really been the origin of what they call the revolution here, there was a very violent crackdown on their tented sit-in earlier in the week, which was set fire to and then bulldozed. And reports of numbers between 50 and even up to a hundred, the protesters claim, died in that attack. That came the same day as reports of al-Qaeda militants, the government claimed, had taken over the southern coastal city of Zinjibar, which seemed almost quite convenient that the media attention was distracted by this report of Islamic militants taking over the city at the same time as government troops attacking peaceful protesters in Taiz.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what is your sense in terms of why Saleh continues to resist calls for him to step down and the prospects, given that the country is the poorest in the Arab world, for a full-blown civil war?

IONA CRAIG: He’s been in power for 32 years now, and I think he probably believes that he can ride this out. He’d also be wary, considering what’s been happening to Mubarak now, who’s going to face trial, although this transfer deal that was brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council would grant him immunity from prosecution. I still think he sees this now as an opportunity both for him to possibly ride out this call for him to step down and also, with the violence spreading around the country now, it’s giving him a better place at the negotiating table in order to be able to find better and more secure terms for him to leave, if he chooses to do so.

The civil war aspect is obviously the greatest concern at the moment. This fighting in Sana’a has been restricted just to this northern area, but it does involve the Hashid tribe, which is the most powerful tribe here in Yemen. And obviously, the longer it goes on, the greater potential for it to drag in larger numbers of tribesmen and also other tribes within the area, as well. Beyond, there has been some fighting with Bakil tribesmen, as well, last week. So the prospect of civil war is still there. But so far, this violence that we have seen and this heavy shelling and heavy fighting have been restricted to northern Sana’a for the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role of the United States at this point, Iona Craig? I mean, the U.S. is very close to Saleh. We heard Hillary Clinton saying the violence will end when he ends. She went on her apology tour in December after WikiLeaks documents came out, the U.S. government documents released by WikiLeaks, that showed that the U.S. was working with the Yemeni government, bombing through drone attacks various areas of Yemen, yet Yemen had agreed to say it was their own military that was doing this. She has been in Yemen a number of times. Has the U.S. relationship with Yemen changed?

IONA CRAIG: Certainly the anti-government protest movement are very disappointed that the U.S. and President Barack Obama haven’t come out and denounced President Saleh as they have done with other Arab leaders in the region during unrest and revolution. They’re very disappointed that they haven’t had support from the U.S. despite the amount of protesters that have been killed in the last three and four months here.

But obviously the major concern, as you mentioned, of the West, the U.S. and Europe, is the mention of al-Qaeda here. And it’s certainly their biggest concern, and the fact that there isn’t an obvious successor to Saleh who will join them in that fight against al-Qaeda in this country. It’s certainly — al-Qaeda has become something of a political weapon or a political tool for Saleh to use, hence the reason we’ve seen these reports, most lately in Zinjibar, of fighting between government troops and so-called al-Qaeda militants.

So, yes, there’s two elements to it. It’s the al-Qaeda concern from America, and the protesters here, who are very disappointed that they haven’t received the support they feel they should from the U.S. as a result.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Iona Craig, we want to thank you for being with us, a journalist from Britain in Sana’a, where she lives, editor at the Yemen Times.

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