CAIRO — A rocket attack wounded Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during prayers at his palace Friday, as fighting between government forces and opposition tribesmen pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
The attack underscored Saleh’s vulnerability in a conflict that was spawned by a peaceful pro-democracy movement but has drawn in rival military units and a growing number of tribal fighters, with violent consequences in the capital, Sanaa.
Saleh, 65, and other Yemeni officials wounded in the attack were being treated Friday night at a military hospital, a government official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi said the president suffered “some scratches” that prevented him from making an advertised televised address. But the president’s failure to appear publicly after the attack prompted many in Yemen to question whether government officials were underplaying the severity of Saleh’s injuries.
The Associated Press, citing the official Yemeni news agency, reported Saturday that five top members of the Yemeni government, including the prime minister and a deputy prime minister, have been flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment after the attack. Reuters quoted al-Arabiya television as saying that Saleh was among those moved to Saudi Arabia, but Yemeni officials denied that report.
Yemeni television broadcast a phoned statement from Saleh on Friday night in which he called tribesmen who are battling government forces in the capital a “gang that has nothing to do with the youth revolution.”
The president, sounding haggard, vowed that the tribesmen would be “defeated.”
But even as he spoke, the conflict was intensifying in Taiz, a southern city that has been one epicenter of the uprising against Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years. It has also encroached on Hadda, a commercial and diplomatic district on Sanaa’s southern edge that includes a housing compound for U.S. officials.
White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan continued to meet with officials in the Persian Gulf on Friday in a bid to broker a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The United States has urged Saleh to step aside, and he has agreed several times — only to renege at the last minute. Now, the Obama administration appears increasingly powerless to stop the bloodletting in a country Washington sees as a key ally in the battle against al-Qaeda.
“The country is going down a very dark road in which we see more tribes and groups being sucked into this conflict,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University. “We’re going to continue to see more of an escalation.”
Friday’s developments marked a dramatic escalation in a conflict that has turned increasingly violent in recent days as diplomatic efforts to force Saleh’s resignation collapsed and once-loyal tribesmen took up arms against the government.
Seven guards were killed in the rocket attack on the mosque at the presidential palace, officials said. Several government officials and an imam were wounded in the blast, which struck as Saleh and his aides attended Friday prayers.
Saleh allies blamed the attack on the tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar, an erstwhile Saleh ally who turned on the president after security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators last month.
“This is a perfidious operation that has crossed all red lines,” Tarik al-Shami, a spokesman for the ruling party, said in a telephone interview.
A spokesman for Ahmar accused Saleh and his aides of staging the incident.
“We had no hand in the attack at all,” spokesman Abdulkawi al-
Qaisi said. “This is just a plot orchestrated by the regime in order to justify its attacks on the people.”
Hours after the attack on the palace, an elite military unit led by Saleh’s son Ahmed launched a barrage of artillery fire in the wealthy Hadda district. The forces appeared to be targeting the houses of Ahmar’s brothers as well as the residence of Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a former army division commander who defected to the opposition in March.
Johnsen, of Princeton, said fighting could significantly escalate if the general’s 1st Armored Division troops begin to actively engage in the fighting — which until now they have avoided.
Yemen’s elite forces have received training and equipment from the U.S. military, which has leaned heavily on the country’s forces in recent years to contain a Yemen-based wing of al-Qaeda that has plotted sophisticated attacks against the United States.
Marine Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday that there were no plans to evacuate U.S. military personnel training Yemeni counterterrorism forces. Lapan declined to say how many U.S. trainers are presently in Yemen, but said they were taking “necessary precautions.”
He said U.S. defense officials were looking into reports that the U.S.-trained Yemeni counterterrorism forces had been redeployed to assist Saleh’s military in the fight against the tribal militias, but said there was “no evidence that any of the counterterrorism forces we’ve trained have been [deployed] against unarmed protesters.”
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa scaled down to a skeleton staff several days ago.
Friday’s violence in the capital unfolded as tens of thousands of government opponents gathered along Sanaa’s main street for Friday prayers and funeral processions. The demonstrators held a mass funeral for dozens of people killed in recent clashes between protesters and security forces. They also decried the government’s violent clearing of a camp used by protesters in Taiz, during which activists say up to 50 people were killed.
On Friday, security forces reportedly opened fire on demonstrators who sought to take back the camp, activist Bukra Maktari said in a phone interview.
Armed men among the protesters shot back at troops, said Faud Ali, a witness. After protesters set three army vehicles on fire, troops used tanks and artillery rounds against the crowd, Ali added.
The White House on Friday issued a statement condemning “in the strongest terms the senseless acts of violence” in Yemen. The statement urged Saleh and his opponents to stop fighting and reconsider the terms of a deal brokered by Persian Gulf states that would have given the president immunity from prosecution in exchange for stepping down promptly. Saleh refused to sign the agreement in mid-May, prompting gulf leaders to suspend their negotiation efforts.
Johnsen said there might be little that outsiders can do to end the violence. The United States and the European Union have “made policy mistakes that have had consequences,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is that the U.S. and the E.U. have less leverage and less influence than they would like.”
A special correspondent in Sanaa and staff writers Craig Whitlock and Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.