Yemen's Crackdown on Protesters Escalates to Air Strikes, Risking War

With forces loyal to President Saleh killing at least 170 and the opposition movement gathering more high-profile defectors, both sides could escalate the country's political conflict into all-out civil war

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Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Reuters

The town of al 'Urr lies in the heart of Yafai, a tribal and geographic delineation. Yafai as a region used to be part of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, the socialist country that merged with the Republic of Yemen in 1990 to form Yemen as it exists today. Many of the Yafai, as a people, are loyalists to the southern cause in the 1994 civil war that, in their view, has not ended.

Tensions between the Yafai and Republican Guard forces, stationed at a nearby base, erupted into gunfire in late April, and skirmishes continued until May 1. On May 2, the Republican Guard forces withdrew from al 'Urr. Video posted to YouTube shows tanks rolling out of the area under white flags made of undershirts, as villagers chant "leave" and "the people want the fall of the regime." Yafai tribesmen plundered the empty base for munitions left behind. Pictures show piles of spent bullet casings and Yafai tribesmen climbing over an abandoned tank while one man holds a homemade Democratic Republic of Yemen flag. On the morning of May 3, the Yemeni Air Force bombed the base. PressTV reported three dead, while the Yemen Rights Monitor blog counted eight injured.

The Democracy Report

The bombing at al 'Urr was the first Yemeni airstrike since the turmoil began. The government could have justified it as a government strike against its own evacuated base to prevent the seizure of war materiel by non-state actors. It could have been an isolated incident, and it was until a week later, on May 10, when members of the Nihm tribe tried to block a tank column from proceeding toward Hadhramaut, where protesters and rebellious tribes had gathered. Skirmishes broke out, and the Nihm tribesmen were also bombed.

Since February, the faltering regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Yemeni opposition movement have engaged in a long, slow war of political attrition. The opposition has gradually gathered defecters from Saleh's government and political party, while government-loyalist forces have attacked protesters with tear gas, anti-riot rounds and, increasingly, small arms fire to whittle away morale. So far, the toll is estimated at approximately 170 deaths, but may be significantly greater -- Yemen's Sahwa Net news reports that the Saleh regime may be stealing the corpses of protesters and burying them in secret. The battle for Yemen's future is a stalemate and both Saleh and the opposition know it. Since the beginning of May, both have responded in the time-honored tradition of stalemates: they've begun escalating.

In Tagheer Square, Sanaa, opposition leaders have established an escalation committee to formulate non-violent means to increase international visibility and to pressure the remnants of the Saleh government. So far, this has meant expanding the 24-hour protest camp and instituting a civil disobedience campaign to close businesses in the capital, as well as expanding such efforts in the cities of Ta'iz and Aden. On Monday, protesters began a hunger strike. A march on the presidential palace is being planned -- it was initially scheduled for Tuesday, but has been postponed.

Presented by

J. Dana Stuster, a Joseph S. Nye National Security Research Intern at Center for a New American Security, is a writer living in Washington, DC.

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