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Islamic militants fight Yemen troops for control of city, locals say

From Mohammed Jamjoom and Hakim Almasmari, CNN
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Unrest rocks Yemen
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: At least 5 protesters are dead and 90 wounded in Taiz, a medical official says
  • Hundreds of government troops battle militants in Zinjibar, witnesses tell CNN
  • A rebel tribe says it will hand back government buildings it has been occupying in the capital
  • Mediators try to work out a truce between tribal groups and the government
RELATED TOPICS
  • Yemen
  • Aden
  • Sanaa
  • Ali Abdullah Saleh

(CNN) -- Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh met Sunday with top military and security officials Sunday to talk about "hostilities and crimes" occurring in his country, the Yemeni State News Agency reported.

The meeting came amid new reports of clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters in Taiz, where witnesses said tens of thousands of demonstrators had taken to the streets Sunday.

Dozens of people were wounded as security forces opened fire on the demonstrators in an effort to disperse them, witnesses told CNN Sunday. Hundreds of protesters responded by throwing rocks at the security forces, which drew more gunfire from the troops, witnesses said.

A medical official in Taiz estimated that at least five people were killed and 90 people had been wounded in Sunday's violence.

Government troops battled suspected Islamic militants for control of a coastal city in Yemen, witnesses said, two days after many soldiers and police abandoned the city.

Hundreds of soldiers had moved back into the city by Sunday and were fighting the militants in Zinjibar. At least 35 people were hospitalized, according to a medical official who asked not to be named for security reasons.

The militants "suddenly arrived and in large numbers. There were no clashes when they arrived on Friday night. We tried to complain to security forces but could not find them," said a resident of the city of Zinjibar, east of Aden, who also asked not to be named for security reasons.

By Saturday, "hundreds" of masked militants controlled the main streets of the city, locals said.

About 200 militants began "attacking ferociously and took everybody by surprise" Saturday morning, according to a Yemeni government official who asked not to be named, since he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Chaos followed as government security forces, including police and soldiers, abandoned their posts, the government source said.

Heavy fighting raged Sunday between the Yemeni Army's 25th Mechanized Brigade and the militants, the source said.

More than two dozen soldiers have been killed since the start of the battle Saturday, the source said.

Abyan province, where Zinjibar is located, is a hotbed of Islamic militancy in Yemen, a country that has become a key battleground against al Qaeda.

Witnesses in the city described the forces in Zinjibar as "Islamic militants" but did not specify that they were al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, in the capital Sanaa, both the government and the al-Hashid tribe say they have not reached a cease-fire agreement after days of street battles.

But a spokesman for the tribe says it is handing back key government buildings it has been occupying.

"Hashid tribes have given the government a number of buildings back after (President Ali Abdullah) Saleh promised not to use them to launch attacks on the tribes," Abdulqawi al-Qaisi said.

"However, this does not mean that a cease-fire has been signed," he said, saying it meant the tribe was "cooperating for a cease-fire to succeed."

Government spokesman Tarq Shami said no deal had been made with the tribe, but that it would halt all military action against them for two days to allow mediators to broker a deal between the two sides.

Neither side said which facilities were involved. The tribe has been occupying four government ministry buildings.

Shami said the government could retake the buildings "in no time, but (the government) does not want violence."

The powerful al-Hashid tribe rose up against long-time leader Saleh in the last week, after he backed out of a regionally brokered deal meant to ease him out of office and end months of demonstrations of the kind that have swept the Arab world this year.

Saleh has been resisting protests calling on him to step down after 33 years in power.

The recent fighting has raised fears of a full-blown civil war in Yemen, an impoverished, arid and mountainous nation that has been a key U.S. ally in the battle against the al Qaeda terrorist network.

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