Deadly violence continues in Yemen’s capital for a third day on Tuesday as rockets hit a protest camp after government security forces battled soldiers who have joined antigovernment protesters.
Taken together, violence in recent days has constituted the worst outbreak in Sana since the beginning of the uprising in Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished country and a haven for Islamic militants.
Reuters cited witnesses as saying at least two rockets fired at a protesters’ camp killed two people on Tuesday. Other unconfirmed news reports said a brief lull in the fighting overnight had given way to a dawn chorus of gunfire and shelling.
Medical officials in the capital said at least 28 people were killed on Monday, pushing the death toll from two days of fighting in Sana to more than 50 — most of them unarmed protesters caught in the shooting — and raising fears here that the escalation of deadly mayhem was hurtling Yemen toward civil war.
In another ominous sign of unraveling, officials closed Sana’s airport for a few hours on Monday night, one of the few times that has happened since the uprising began in February. There were conflicting reports of a cease-fire late Monday night.
Mr. Saleh, the 33-year autocrat and American ally, has been recuperating in Saudi Arabia from an assassination attempt here more than three months ago. He has vowed to return to Yemen, despite his repeated pledges to step down in a negotiated transfer of power.
And while the United States has been working behind the scenes to find a political solution to ease Mr. Saleh out of office, it has been slow to publicly call for him to step down, in contrast to the American position on some other repressive autocrats in the Arab world, most notably in Libya. The United States Embassy here issued a statement expressing regret over the casualties in Sana.
“In this tense situation, we call upon all parties to exercise restraint,” said the statement. “In particular, we call on the parties to refrain from actions that provoke further violence. We reject actions that undermine productive efforts under way to achieve a political resolution to the current crisis.”
To some extent, the new violence may be an outcome of a bitter, decades-old rivalry within Yemen’s political elite, one that has largely displaced the popular uprising. The rivalry pits Mr. Saleh and his family — who still control most of the country’s important military and intelligence resources — against one of Yemen’s most powerful tribal clans, the Ahmars, and an army officer who has defected, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, who is no relation and whose soldiers have been protecting the protesters for months and clashing with government forces over the past two days.
It is notable that the violence broke out just as negotiations were intensifying on a possible political settlement between the governing party and opposition leaders that would, theoretically at least, lead to an early presidential election and possibly bring a sense of stability to the country. But those negotiations have been conducted without much input from either the Saleh or Ahmar clans or General Ahmar, who all have a vested interest in the outcome.
Jamal Benomar, a United Nations special envoy, and a delegation from the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional group, arrived in Sana on Monday in an effort to expedite the negotiations. “Mediators were finalizing a power transfer plan that will prevent the dominance of both houses of Ahmars and Salehs,” said one Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media on the subject.
The protesters have opposed any settlement that would preserve much of Yemen’s status quo. To emphasize that point, they tried on Sunday to move beyond the area in central Sana where their tent city, protected by General Ahmar’s soldiers, has become a fixture of their cause. That move may have been the catalyst for the violence.
Another Yemeni official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said General Ahmar called the acting president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, for permission to allow the protesters to demonstrate outside the protected zone. General Ahmar promised he would keep the protests peaceful, the official said, and then — whether intentionally or not — allowed them to attack government soldiers with stones. The soldiers responded with lethal force.
By Monday afternoon, the protest scene was a mixture of chaos and resolve. Motorcycles and ambulances carried mangled bodies away from the center of fighting, a major intersection just south of the site of anti-Saleh sit-ins. But protesters held their ground, despite the risks.
Soldiers from the First Armored Division, commanded by General Ahmar, took over the intersection Sunday evening after clashing with security forces. Protesters erected tents in the intersection, improbably known as Kentucky Square because of a restaurant resembling a KFC that used to be there.
Fighting intensified as rocket-propelled grenades fell near the protesters, and forces loyal to General Ahmar fired artillery at government positions.
Many protesters sat in their tents chewing qat, the leafy green stimulant, as the booms of artillery echoed.
“We are staying here until we die,” said Wuheib al-Youseffy, 32, sitting on a curb with a group of men amid gunfire and artillery explosions. “Why should we be scared? We are used to this.”
Many compared their situation to the fighting in Libya, where antigovernment forces supported by a NATO bombing campaign ended the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi last month.
“The international community isn’t doing anything here,” said one protester, Awad Mansour, 26. “Look at Libya: they froze their assets, they helped the rebels, and for us,they don’t do anything.”
By LAURA KASINOF
Robert F. Worth contributed reporting from New York.