Artillery fire and shelling rocked Yemen’s capital again on Wednesday despite a truce declared overnight aimed at ending fighting between rival military units that has killed dozens, witnesses said.
Wednesday’s fighting erupted in a central street of Sana’a whose residents include Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who had late Tuesday declared the truce, the witnesses told AFP.
Bursts of shelling threatened a fragile new truce in Yemen’s capital Sana’a late on Tuesday as politicians scrambled to end the bloodiest fighting in eight months of anti-government protests and Washington called for a political solution to avert further bloodshed.
Both government forces and troops loyal to General Ali Mohsen, who defected to pro-democracy protesters in March, vowed to stand by a ceasefire ordered by Hadi.
But witnesses said two mortars hit the end of a street on Tuesday evening where thousands of protesters were camping out to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule, according to Reuters.
“The whole place shook with the explosion and clouds of dust shot up in the air when the second mortar hit,” protester Badr Ali said.
The death toll has risen to around 76 since Sunday, when protesters’ frustration boiled over at Saleh’s refusal to accept a mediated handover plan. Saleh has been in Saudi Arabia since June, where he had surgery on injuries that he suffered in an assassination attempt.
The fighting between state troops and defected soldiers began after tens of thousands of protesters marched on Sunday close to a part of Sana’a controlled by government forces.
World powers fear that chaos in Yemen, home to al-Qaeda’s most powerful regional branch and adjoining the world’s biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia, could imperil oil shipping lanes and raise the risk of militant strikes on Western targets.
“The United States continues to support the Yemeni people’s aspirations for a peaceful and orderly transition that is responsive to their aspirations for peace, reconciliation, prosperity, and security,” Nuland said in a statement, according to AFP.
“A political solution is the best way to avoid further bloodshed,” she said while attending meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
“We remain hopeful that an agreement will be reached that leads to the expeditious signing of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) political transition initiative,” Nuland said.
The GCC plan, proposed last spring, calls on Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down as president and hand over all constitutional authorities to the vice president.
In return, Saleh would receive amnesty from prosecution for himself and his family. But Saleh has so far failed to sign the deal.
Opposition and government sources said talks were continuing over the Gulf-backed transition plan, from which Saleh has backed out three times.
U.N. mediator Jamal bin Omar and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdbullatif al-Zayani arrived in Sana’a on Monday to boost efforts to get the deal signed.
A Western diplomat told Reuters mediators were trying to hang on to the positive direction the talks had been taking only a few days before the clashes.
During three days of chaos, Reuters reporters saw government forces using heavy fire against street marches and snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
Government officials and opposition groups have traded blame. But there appeared to be broad agreement that government forces had clashed with those of the defected General Ali Mohsen, who has pledged to defend protesters, after his men took control of territory previously under government control.
The opposition said Mohsen’s troops took the area to head off security forces they believed would enter the protest camp.
A source at Mohsen’s office said on Tuesday his forces would hold fire at the vice president's request, but that the protesters might be harder to control. “I don’t think the youth protesters can be reined in until this regime leaves power.”
Some 400 protesters have been killed since protests began in January.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday it had reports of shooting at al-Gomhori Hospital, one of Sana’a’s main hospitals, as violence reached “unprecedented” levels in Yemen’s capital.
Four defector soldiers were killed in street fighting with pro-Saleh forces on Tuesday, and two civilians died when three rockets crashed into a protest camp just after Tuesday morning prayers at around 5 am (0200 GMT), witnesses said.
Mohsen, a top Yemeni general, dealt a major blow to Saleh when he and his troops defected after an attack on demonstrators by security forces in March that killed 52 people.
“There are spoilers on both sides who are not looking for a compromise or maybe aren't getting what they want from a compromise,” said April Longley Alley, senior Arabian Peninsula analyst at the International Crisis Group in Abu Dhabi. “Maybe they feel they could achieve more by escalating right now.”