Sanaa, Yemen, May 30: Yemeni warplanes carried out airstrikes on Monday on a southern town seized by hundreds of Islamic militants over the weekend, witnesses said, as the political crisis surrounding the embattled president descended into more bloodshed.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has clung to power despite months of daily protests, defections by key allies and international pressure to go, has repeatedly warned that Islamic militants and al-Qaida would seize control of the country if he steps down.
At the same time, he has intensified a crackdown on protesters. Military units loyal to him carried out a fierce assault Monday on the southern city of Taiz, which has been a hotbed of anti-government protests since the start of the uprising in early February. A doctor at a field hospital set up in the city's main protest camp said at least 20 demonstrators were killed.
Saleh's opponents, including some in the military, have accused him of allowing the militant takeover of the small town of Zinjibar to try to bolster his argument that he is a key bulwark against al-Qaida and win back support from countries like the United States.
Fighter jets fired at the southern outskirts of the town, and loud explosions were followed by rising columns of smoke, said resident Ali Dahmas, who spoke by telephone.
"It is also disturbing because the positions the army is targeting are residential areas," he said.
Military units battled the militants in Zinjibar overnight and into the morning in an attempt to clear the fighters from the town, where they've blockaded themselves behind barricades and rocks since Friday.
Shelling killed at least four of the fighters, bringing the death toll there since Saturday to 34, according to an official at al-Razi hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to journalists. The dead included soldiers, militants and civilians, he said.
"The sound of explosions and bullets are rattling the city," said Waleed Mohammed Mokbal, a resident of the town center. "An exchange of gunfire in nonstop."
The Islamists who seized Zinjibar are not members of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is of major concern to the United States. They are former members of a group known as the Aden Army, which fought in Afghanistan against Soviet forces in the 1980s and returned to side with Saleh's government to put down a 1994 civil war with the south. The militiamen demanded payback for their help and were given key positions within security forces or as civil servants.
The same group took over the nearby town of Jaar earlier in the political unrest roiling the country, and there were also accusations then that Saleh had allowed them to do so.
On Monday, the militants moved out from Zinjibar and shot dead four military officers they stopped at fake checkpoints they had set up along the road to the port city of Aden, the official at al-Razi hospital said.
Yemen's unrest has veered dramatically in the past week.
The failure of a mediation effort by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations seeking to persuade Saleh to transfer power gave way to five days of fierce street battles in the capital last week between pro-Saleh military units and armed men loyal to the country's most powerful tribal leader, who has joined the opposition. That fighting killed 124 people.
In Monday's assault on Saleh's opponents in Taiz, hundreds of soldiers from the Republican Guard stormed a protest camp in the southern city, firing on crowds and bulldozing a field hospital set up in anticipation of such an attack.
Security forces first tried to clear the square in Taiz with water cannons, tear gas and loud stun grenades, sending thousands rushing for shelter.
Forces from the Republican Guard, which is commanded by one of Saleh's sons, then moved in before dawn and were backed by tanks, said Sadek al-Shugaa, head of the field hospital at the protest camp.
Republican Guard soldiers along with security forces and armed men in civilian clothes attacked the protesters. Some set fire to dozens of tents used by protesters occupying the square for weeks, and bulldozers ran over hundreds of other tents without checking whether anyone was still inside, two witnesses said.
One of the witnesses, Mohammed al-Zarafi, said he saw tents being set on fire while injured protesters were still inside.
The other witness, protester Boushra al-Maqtali, called the attack "a real massacre."
"The square and the (field) hospital are in ruins," she said. "The tanks took the place of hundreds of tents that were set up there. The artillery units are occupying the whole space to make it impossible for the youth to return to the square," she said.
Troops also attacked the Majeedi Hotel overlooking the square, where journalists were detained, al-Shugaa said. Then snipers took over the top of the building to shoot at protesters, he said. Amateur video aired by Al-Jazeera TV showed masked men with rifles shooting from rooftops at protesters in the streets.
Al-Shagaa said most of those injured were in critical condition with gunshot wounds to the head, chest and neck. Several dozen of the injured were dragged away by security forces, he said.
Meanwhile, Islamist militants consolidated control over a second city in southern Yemen on Sunday, seizing banks, government offices and the security headquarters as government forces responded with mortar fire, The New York Times reported.
The fall of the coastal city of Zinjibar to self-styled holy warriors who claimed to have “liberated” it from “the agents of the Americans” fed into Western fears that militants sympathetic to Al Qaeda could exploit the breakdown of authority to take control of territory.
Political opponents of Yemen's embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, portrayed the takeover as a ploy by Saleh to prove to wavering allies why they needed to keep him in power.
While Saleh, who has faced months of massive street protests demanding his ouster, has frequently warned that militants would take over the country if he left, there was no evidence on Sunday that he had any role in allowing Zinjibar to fall.
The fighting in the south came after a week in which tribal fighting in the capital, Sana, pushed the country to the brink of civil war. That front seemed to quiet on Sunday as the government struck a cease-fire deal with its tribal rivals, bringing relative calm here after days of fierce fighting in which more than 100 people were killed.
Violence broke out between the two sides last Monday after Saleh refused to follow through on his promise to sign an agreement leading to his resignation. It was the third time since the uprising began in January that Saleh had agreed to transfer power, and the third time he reneged on the promise.
Officials described the truce as tenuous, and gun fire and shelling were heard in the capital late on Sunday night.
The protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in cities across Yemen continued, and at the largest one, in the central city of Taiz, security forces fired at protesters from a government building on Sunday, killing four, according to a local doctor, Abdul Rahim al-Samie. Early on Monday, protesters there said that plainclothes men were setting their tents on fire and destroying others with bulldozer.