Rebel attack on palace wounds Yemeni president and top officials

Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded when opposition tribesmen determined to topple him hammered his palace with rockets in a major escalation of nearly two weeks of fighting with government forces.

Six guards were killed and seven top officials were also wounded, an official said. Saleh suffered light injuries to the neck and was treated in the palace.

Yemeni state TV quickly aired a statement that Saleh was “in good health”, denying a claim on an opposition TV station that the president was killed in the strike.

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It was the first time that tribal fighters have directly targeted Saleh’s palace in the fighting that has rocked the capital since May 23. The rocket strike came after government forces launched an intense artillery barrage at the homes of two tribal leaders and a top military general who also joined the opposition. The houses were flattened, witnesses said.

The fighting pits Saleh’s troops against tribesmen loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, head of the Hashid, Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation. Al-Ahmar supports the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have been pressing for Saleh to step down since February, but his tribal fighters stayed on the sidelines until Saleh’s troops last week moved against al-Ahmar’s residence in the capital, Sanaa.

The rockets hit the presidential compound as officials were praying at a mosque inside, the official said. Four guards were killed and seven other officials were wounded.

Among those wounded were the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the parliament speaker and the governor of Sanaa, the official said. The most serious injuries were to Sanaa’s governor Nooman Dweid and deputy prime minister Rashad al-Alimi, who is also the president’s top security adviser and who had not yet regained consciousness last night.

Saleh, in power for 33 years, has stuck out for months against the wave of peaceful protests that has spread across Yemen since February. Tens of thousands of demonstrators continue to mass daily in a central square of Sanaa, as well as in other cities. On Thursday night, government forces opened fire on protesters in Sanaa, wounding three, and troops also fired on protesters in the city of Taiz, south of the capital, on Friday.

But the fighting in Sanaa has turned the conflict into an all-out battle for power between two families, the al-Ahmar and Salehs.

The president has for years planted his close relatives in command of security forces and in top government positions. In days of fighting, tribesmen have overrun more than a dozen ministries and government buildings, and government artillery has pounded Sanaa’s Hassaba district where Sadeq al-Ahmar’s residence is located.