Violent clashes between heavily armed tribesmen and government troops that have rocked the Yemeni capital over the past five days spread outside San'a on Friday, raising concerns that another destabilizing Arab nation could tip into a civil war.
A tribal militia opposed to President Ali Abdullah Saleh attacked military installations controlled by Republican Guards in the el-Fardha Nehem region, about 50 miles northeast of San'a, prompting the government to call in aerial strikes, according to government and tribal sources.
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By Friday evening, the fighting had ceased but dozens were dead, including four tribal leaders, with both sides vowing to fight until the end. Tribal and government sources said they expected the fighting to resume Saturday with tribes pledging to avenge "every drop of blood shed," while the government maintains its resolve to crush dissent.
Despite growing international concern, violence in Yemen has escalated after mediation efforts failed to force the Yemeni leader to resign.
Witnesses said the tribes had the upper hand in control of three military bases, and said members of the Republican Guards had disarmed and retreated. Residents of Nehem also reported terrifying scenes throughout Friday of civilian houses coming under missiles and rocket-propelled grenade attacks by the government trying to rout out militants from villages.
Nehem residents said women and children were trapped, houses reduced to rubble and many injured. San'a was quiet but very tense, residents said, adding that fear was rising that with Mr. Saleh hanging on to power, the possibility of civil war was looming.
"Our blood is not cheap and we will avenge from the government for every drop of Nehem blood that is shed," said a fighter in Nehem reached by phone on Friday.
In the past week, at least 100 people have been killed as security forces loyal to Mr. Saleh battled a tribal confederation known as the Hashid that has joined the opposition's fight against the government. The clashes started Sunday when President Saleh declined to sign the deal brokered by Arab diplomats and supported by Washington that offered him and his family immunity in return for leaving power.
The escalation in violence is changing the nature of the protests—which like Egypt started as a peaceful call for transition—to a potentially dangerous armed conflict scenario like Libya.
Yemen is a primarily tribal community, particularly in rural areas, and loyalties to tribes runs deep. The Hashid tribe, one of the most powerful, commands hundreds of thousands of Yemenis and has swiftly turned the table against Mr. Saleh.
Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmad, the head of the Hashid tribe, called on Mr.Saleh to step down on Thursday or he'd be blamed for "dragging the country to civil war."—Hakim Almasmari contributed to this article.