Organised chaos in Yemen

More than 100 people are reported dead following an explosion at a munitions factory in southern Yemen on Monday . The Financial Times says:

According to a resident of the area, the explosion took place when local people swarmed into the building to steal ammunition, after government security forces withdrew from the town of Jaar in the province of Abyan.

Armed actors, said by some to be Islamist militants, and others to be tribesmen, reportedly clashed with the army in Jaar on Sunday.

Following the breakdown of talks about his departure at the weekend, President Salih has hardened his line, saying there will be no more concessions and apparently reverting to the position that he will stay in office until 2013 when his presidential term officially ends.

The withdrawal of security forces which led to the tragedy in Jaar seems to be part of a ploy by Salih to encourage chaos in certain areas of the country – even attacks by militants connected to al-Qaeda – as a way of demonstrating (especially to the Americans) that Yemen needs him. However, the ploy is so transparent that even the US, which has so far been reluctant to see Salih go, may find it a bit too much to swallow.

According to Arab News, the regime has now "lost its grip" (or given it up) in at least four provinces: Saada and al-Jawf in the north, and Abyan and Shabwa in the south:

In the northern province of Saada, Houthi rebels seized control of the province following clashes with local tribes, a resident told Arab News. The rebels now run government facilities and control checkpoints. Residents approved Faris Manna, a notorious arms dealer, as replacement for the governor who has fled to the capital. Police deserted their posts and relocated themselves to army camps.

In Shabwa, armed men from Southern Movement attacked and looted Central Security camps. They are now in full control of four major districts including Nessab, Al-Saaed, Haban and Maevaa, a local journalist told Arab News by telephone. The government’s writ runs only in Ataq, the capital of the province, and another district, Bayhan.

The Norwegian daily, Aftenposten, is suggesting that President Salih tried to trick Saudi forces into killing his kinsman, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, who recently sided with the opposition. Ali Muhsin has long been regarded as a potential challenger for power.

The incident happened late in 2009 or early in 2010 when the Saudi air force was bombing the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen. 

A cable from the US embassy in Riyadh, published by Wikileaks,describes a conversation with Prince Khaled, the assistant defence minister of Saudi Arabia. The cable says:

Prince Khaled also reported that the Saudis had problems with some of the targeting recommendations received from the Yemeni side. 

For instance, there was one occasion when Saudi pilots aborted a strike, when they sensed something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis. It turned out that the site recommended to be hit was the headquarters of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the Yemeni northern area military commander, who is regarded as a political opponent to President Saleh. 

This incident prompted the Saudis to be more cautious about targeting recommendations from the Yemeni government. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 March 2011