Violence appears to have outpaced Yemen's peaceful pro-democracy protests as fighting overnight between government forces and a prominent tribal militia has exploded in capital Sana'a.

In scenes strongly indicating the early onset of a civil war, people, fearing for their lives are leaving in droves from Sana'a. Witnesses say that families hastily tying their personal belongings atop cars, packed with passengers, that are streaming out of the Yemeni capital.

At least 40 people have already been killed as the city began to slowly descend into chaos since Monday.

Fighting surged on Wednesday night when government forces began to battle armed men from the Hashed tribe. In the shelling that commenced, an ammunition depot was apparently hit, causing heavy explosions, which killed 28 people, hospital sources said. Al Jazeera quoted a government official as saying that a prominent pro-opposition television station had been “destroyed” in the fighting. The Suhail TV channel is owned by Hameed al-Ahmar, brother of the tribal patriarch Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar. On Thursday there were claims of heavy fighting at Sana'a airport, which was threatening the closure of the facility.

Reacting to the armed tribal revolt, embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ordered arrest of Sheikh Ahmar. He has been accused along with his nine brothers of fomenting an “armed rebellion” against the State.

But dismissing the arrest bid as an empty stratagem, Sheikh Ahmar said that he was surrounded and protected by die-hard loyalists. His tribesmen had also captured 70 soldiers — a situation that is likely to deter an all-out government assault against him. The al-Ahmar tribesmen are also apparently occupying five ministerial buildings as well as a number of blocks.

The clashes are bringing Yemen dangerously close to a civil war, especially as the country's armed forces now appear badly divided.

Anti-Saleh military commander, General Ali al-Mohsen, has appealed afresh to the armed forces to desert the President. “Beware of following this madman who is thirsty for more bloodshed,” he said.

The growing chaos in Yemen has already alarmed the country's oil rich neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia. The Saudi daily Arab News quoted Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the Kingdom's Assistant Minister of Defence, as saying that Riyadh was well prepared to defend its borders. Analysts point out that in case Yemen slides into anarchy, it can lift the pressure off al-Qaeda, presenting the group an opportunity to threaten the House of Saud, its sworn enemy next door.

Yemen is also facing a rebellion of ethnic Houthis in the north and a separatist's movement in the south — huge challenges which threaten to turn the impoverished country into a failed State.

The escalation of violence in Sana'a has begun after President Saleh's last minute withdrawal from signing a deal with the opposition which would have provided him immunity from prosecution, provided he stepped down from office within 30 days.

Keywords: Yemen civil war

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