U.S. warns Americans in Yemen of 'extremely high' security threat amid unrest and 'terrorist activities'

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
By Portia Walker
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 10:51 PM

SANAA, YEMEN - The United States on Sunday warned citizens in Yemen to consider leaving the country as violence escalated between government loyalists and protesters seeking the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The State Department upgraded its travel warning for the country, saying the embassy's ability to assist in the event of a crisis was "very limited." Officials described the security threat as "extremely high due to terrorist activities and civil unrest."

The warning came a day after British officials issued similar warnings to their citizens.

Civil unrest in Yemen began after the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Cairo. Daily anti-government rallies have been held in cities across Yemen since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in Egypt on Feb. 11. In the town of Ibb on Sunday, government loyalists attacked protesters with sticks and stones, the Associated Press reported.

As the protests have grown, pressure has increased for Saleh, in power for three decades, to resign. But after days of protracted behind-the-scenes negotiations, the president on Saturday rejected an opposition proposal that he leave office early. He has pledged to remain president until his term ends in 2013. But there have been several high-profile defections from Saleh's team in recent days, including several cabinet ministers, bringing the total number of resignations from the ruling party to at least 13.

As many as six people were killed over the weekend in suspected al-Qaeda attacks. In the most deadly assault, militants opened fire on government forces, killing four members of the elite Republican Guard, authorities said. The soldiers were ambushed Sunday morning as they delivered food to military checkpoints in the impoverished province of Marib, 110 miles east of the capital, Sanaa. There is an active al-Qaeda presence in Marib, where the Saleh government holds little sway.

In separate attacks in the south, militants assassinated Col. Shayif al-Shoaibi in Hadramout, and in Abyan's Zanjibar district, two suspected al-Qaeda members on a motorbike assassinated Col. Abdulhamed Qassim, according to a government statement. The men were part of an internal security and intelligence-gathering force. The statement said that the Yemeni air force was assisting a military unit pursuing the armed men and that additional troops had been dispatched to the area.

Officials and observers warned that the killings - although unrelated to the anti-government demonstrations - are indicative of what might happen if Saleh's ouster created a security vacuum in already fragile Yemen. The country's political structure is underpinned by complex tribal allegiances, and as tribes align themselves with the president or the anti-government demonstrators, officials and observers say, a civil war could break out.

Elsewhere in the region, thousands of Shiite opposition demonstrators in Bahrain blocked the entrance to the prime minister's office Sunday but failed to disrupt a government meeting, the Associated Press reported.

The Shiite majority has long complained of discrimination and political persecution in Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni dynasty. The protesters demanded that the prime minister step down because of corruption and a deadly crackdown on the opposition in which seven people were killed, according to the AP report.

Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the prime minister and the king's uncle, has been in power for 40 years.

Khalifa, who was presiding over a weekly meeting of government ministers Sunday, told the state-run Bahrain News Agency that changes are underway and that the kingdom's "reform march will continue."

Walker is a special correspondent.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company