But the intervention of tribal militias in what had been a nonviolent revolution has added a combustible new dimension to the uprising in Yemen. Portions of Taiz, Yemen’s second-largest city, have turned into a war zone, and while the tribesmen say they are protecting the activists, the change appears likely to bring more upheaval to this fractured Middle Eastern nation.
Last weekend, violent clashes erupted again between the tribesmen and government forces, which included shelling of parts of the city, killing several people.
“Taiz is more of a time bomb now. It could explode at any minute,” said Ali Mohammed Almujahed, a senior ruling party official here. “Both sides are filled up with anger and hatred.”
Fueled by decades of neglect and resentment of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, protesters in this south-central city, considered the intellectual soul of Yemen, rose up in February. Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, they erected scores of tents in a section of Taiz they renamed Freedom Square, emulating Cairo’s Tahrir — or Liberation — Square. Thousands camped out around the clock, staging rallies demanding the ouster of Saleh.
Since April, the government’s security forces have tried to suppress the rebellion, shooting dead dozens of protesters and preventing them from marching toward the city’s presidential palace and other government institutions. The tactics in recent weeks have emulated those used by autocrats in Syria and Bahrain, who have cracked down violently on protesters in an effort to intimidate the opposition.
May 29: A touchstone
For weeks, Makhlafi and other anti-government tribal leaders expressed support for the protesters but watched from the sidelines. Some were aligned with Yemen’s political opposition; others held long-standing grievances against the regime and sensed an opportunity to exert their power.
Then, on May 29, the security forces attacked Freedom Square. There are conflicting versions of what unfolded, but it remains a touchstone for all sides.
Activists say the soldiers opened fire on demonstrators and set fire to tents. As many as 140 were killed, the activists allege. They now refer to the day as “the Holocaust.” In a rare interview, Taiz’s head of security, Col. Abdullah Abdu Kayran, denied the allegations. He acknowledged that security forces entered the square but said they did not commit atrocities. He said eight people died that day.
Within hours of the attack, Makhlafi and other tribal leaders rose up and engaged the security forces in fierce clashes. The tribesmen hailed from villages on the outskirts of the city. Armed with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs, they knew the city’s streets and alleys well and had the loyalty of much of the population. That gave them a significant advantage over the security forces that were largely brought in from other parts of the country.