SANAA, Yemen - President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded when rebellious tribesmen struck his palace with rockets yesterday, targeting him for the first time in a dramatic escalation of fighting that has turned parts of the capital into a battleground and pushed Yemen toward civil war.
One of the rockets smashed into a mosque on the palace grounds where the president was praying along with his top leadership. It was a stunning hit on the regime's most senior figures: Among the nine wounded were the prime minister, Saleh's powerful top security adviser and the two heads of parliament, as well as the cleric leading prayers. Seven guards were killed.
Officials said Saleh had only slight injuries - Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi spoke only of "scratches to his face." But there were indications the injuries may have been more severe. Saleh, in his late 60s, was taken to a Defense Ministry hospital, while officials promised repeatedly that he would soon appear in public. But by late yesterday, state TV had aired only an audio message from the president, with an old still photo.
"If you are well, I am well," Saleh said in the brief message, addressing Yemenis. He spoke in a labored voice, his breathing at times heavy. He blamed the rocket attack on "this armed gang of outlaws," referring to the tribal fighters, and called on "all sons of the military around the country to confront" them.
The bold assault directly on the president is likely to heighten what has been an increasingly brutal fight between Saleh's forces and the heavily armed tribesmen loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar. Since violence erupted May 23, Sanaa residents have been hiding in basements as the two sides fight over control of government ministries and duke it out with artillery and gunbattles, shaking neighborhoods and sending palls of smoke over the city.
The bloodshed comes as nearly four months of protests and international diplomacy have failed to oust Yemen's leader of 33 years.
After the rocket attack, government forces intensified shelling on Sanaa's Hassaba district, the epicenter of the fighting where al-Ahmar's residential compound is located. Many of the compound's buildings and surrounding houses have already been heavily damaged by days of bombardment.
The White House called on all sides to stop the fighting, which has killed more than 160 people.
President Obama's Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, discussed the crisis in Yemen with officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during a three-day visit to the Gulf that ended yesterday, vowing to work with Yemen's powerful neighbors to stop the violence.
Washington fears that the chaos will undermine the Yemen government's U.S.-backed campaign against al Qaeda's branch in the country, which has attempted a number of attacks against the United States. Saleh has been a crucial U.S. ally in the anti-terror fight, but Washington is now trying to negotiate a stable exit for him.
Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters have been trying unsuccessfully since February to oust Saleh with a wave of peaceful protests that have brought out hundreds of thousands daily in Sanaa and other cities.