Sana`a: Raging battles between government forces and military units opposed to Yemen`s president killed 12 people in the capital on Tuesday as a crisis over a violent state crackdown on popular unrest drifted toward civil war.
Despite an order from the vice president for a ceasefire, the afternoon calm was broken by explosions and machine gun fire.
Witnesses said two mortars hit at the end of a street where thousands of protesters have camped out for eight months to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh`s 33-year rule.
"The whole place shook with the explosion and clouds of dust shot up in the air when the second mortar hit," protester Badr Ali said.
The death toll has risen to around 70 people since Sunday, when frustration boiled over at Saleh`s refusal to accept a mediated power transfer plan even after he suffered serious wounds in a June assassination attempt.
That has turned the violence prevalent in the street revolt against Saleh from shooting at protesters increasingly into a military showdown between forces loyal to him and troops and tribes who have defected to the opposition.
World powers fear that spreading chaos in Yemen, home to al Qaeda`s most powerful regional branch and flanking No. 1 oil exporter Saudi Arabia, could imperil international oil shipping and raise the risk of militant strikes on Western targets.
Opposition and government sources said they were in talks on a political solution to the crisis. A Western diplomat said mediators were trying to hang on to the positive direction talks had been heading only a few days earlier.
"All the evidence is that we are continuing with Yemeni politics and conflict as usual. They will sit down and talk, but without a deal, it will kick off again in the future," the diplomat said.
Heavy shelling and machinegun fire rocked Sanaa before dawn on Tuesday and snipers lurked in the upper stories of buildings near the protester camp, which they call "Change Square."
Four defector soldiers were killed in street fighting with pro-Saleh forces and two civilians died when three rockets crashed into a protest camp just after morning prayers at around 5 a.m. (0200 GMT), witnesses said.
"We were walking back from prayers. All of a sudden a rocket hit close by from out of nowhere, and some people fell down. And then a second one came and that`s when we saw the two martyred," Manea al-Matari, a protest organizer, said by telephone.
Government officials and opposition groups have traded accusations over who was responsible for the violence of the past two days of which activists at Change Square, who number in the thousands, were the main victims.
But a consensus was emerging among sources on all sides that government forces clashed with those of defected General Ali Mohsen, who has pledged to defend protesters, after his men took control of territory previously under government control.
The opposition said Mohsen`s troops took the area to fend off security forces they believed would enter the protest camp.
A source at Mohsen`s office said his forces were holding off fire at the request of Saleh`s Vice President Abd al-Hadi Mansour but warned that protesters would be harder to control. "I don`t think the youth protesters can be reined in until this regime leaves power," the source said.
Some 400 protesters have been killed since protests began in January.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday it had reports of shooting at al-Gomhori Hospital, one of Sanaa`s main hospitals, as violence reached "unprecedented" levels in Yemen`s capital.
In Geneva, ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said: "Armed men are inside the hospital, it is one of the main hospitals." He had no further information on who the gunmen were or whether there had been any casualties.
Pools of Blood
In Change Square, crowds flocked to the sites of the blasts that killed the two protesters earlier on Tuesday. Stones were laid around a dark pool of blood near a metal storefront that was ripped open. Around the corner, tattered shoes lay scattered next to a patch of blood.
At the field hospital in Change Square, the wounded were carried in on blood-streaked stretchers while doctors sought to make room for more casualties. Doctors said the hospital had calmed down as fighting slowed through the evening, but two in critical condition had died and two more were killed by what they believed were sniper shots.
Protesters thronging the streets initially headed toward the "Kentucky Roundabout," an area where they have been trying to extend their reach, but were forced to turn back by fierce fighting between government and Mohsen forces.
Protest organizers called for a mass funeral march down a main highway on Wednesday.
Government forces in the past two days have responded to escalating street marches with heavy fire, while snipers shot at protesters from rooftops, according to witnesses.
Mohsen`s forces started clashing with pro-Saleh troops on Monday, though it was unclear who started the fighting.
Mohsen, a top Yemeni general, dealt a major blow to Saleh when he and his troops defected after a March attack on demonstrators by security forces that killed 52 people.
Government officials denied responsibility for the deaths and said opposition "militias" were targeting protesters.
A high-ranking ruling party official dismissed the idea of talks for an official ceasefire under current conditions, saying government forces may need to act in self-defense.
"There are spoilers on both sides who are not looking for a compromise or maybe aren`t getting what they want from a compromise," said April Longley Alley, senior analyst for Arabian Peninsula at the International Crisis Group in Abu Dhabi. "Maybe they feel they could achieve more by escalating right now."
Worst Case Scenario
Diplomats, struggling for months to help the opposition and government reach a political deal, have feared rising tensions in the capital of the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state could deteriorate into open military conflict.
Diplomats and Yemeni politicians were scrambling to salvage a long-stalled transition plan under which Saleh, recuperating in neighboring Saudi Arabia from the June attempt on his life, would step down, yielding to a reform process.
A source in Yemen`s political opposition said members were meeting government officials and diplomats to try to push through a deal. UN mediator Jamal bin Omar and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdbullatif al-Zayani arrived in Sanaa on Monday and were expected to join the talks.
Zayani was expected to press for the signing of a Gulf-brokered transition plan which Saleh backed out of three times before. "There`s a possibility of trying to push through the Gulf plan for signing this week," an opposition source said.