SANAA, Yemen – President Ali Abdullah Saleh was wounded when rebellious tribesmen struck his palace with rockets Friday, 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 Friday, 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.
"Violence cannot resolve the issues that confront Yemen, and today's events cannot be a justification for a new round of fighting," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
President Barack 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 Friday, 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-Qaida'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.
Now the crisis has transformed into a power struggle between two of Yemen's most powerful families — Saleh's, which dominates the security forces, and the al-Ahmar clan, which leads Yemen's strongest tribal confederation, known as the Hashid. The confederation is grouped around 10 tribes across the north.
Al-Ahmar announced the Hashid's support for the protest movement in March, and his fighters adhered to the movement's nonviolence policy. But last week, Saleh's forces moved against al-Ahmar's fortress-like residence in Sanaa, and the tribe's fighters rose up in fury.
Friday's attack was the first time the tribesmen have directly targeted the president. At least three rockets hit in and around Saleh's palace compound in Friday's strike, one of them hitting the front of the mosque, where he and his officials were lined up in prayer, according to a presidential statement. Seven members of Saleh's personal guard were killed.
At least nine others were wounded, a government official said. They included the prime minister, two deputy prime ministers, the heads of the upper and lower houses of parliament, the governor of Sanaa, the head of the ruling party bloc in parliament and Saleh's secretary, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The most severe injuries were to Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi, who is also the president's top security adviser and who remained unconscious from his wounds, the official said.
Those who, by protocol, would have been standing directly next to Saleh during the prayers — the prime minister and head of the upper house of parliament — both suffered heavy burns and wounds to the back, said officials close to the two men, who also declined to be identified because the issue is sensitive.
Before dawn Friday, shelling and gunbattles raged in Hassaba, where tribesmen have overrun more than a dozen ministries and government buildings. In the morning, government forces expanded their shelling to the capital's southern Hadda district, pounding the homes of two of al-Ahmar's brothers, Hameed and Himyar.
They also targeted the home of Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the powerful 1st Armored Division who has also joined the opposition but has so far stayed out of the battle. He is not related to Sadeq al-Ahmar. The houses were destroyed, witnesses said.
The al-Ahmars were once uneasy allies of Saleh, and their Hashid confederation was key to his hold on power. But Sadeq al-Ahmar and his nine brothers have grown increasingly resentful of Saleh's policy of elevating his sons, nephews and other relatives to dominate regime positions, particularly in the security forces.
Their fight comes as Saleh's forces continue to crack down on the tens of thousands of demonstrators still massing daily in a central square of Sanaa and in other cities.
Troops fired on protesters Friday in the city of Taiz, south of the capital, wounding two. A Defense Ministry statement said four soldiers were killed and 26 others injured in clashes there with gunmen it said were from the opposition and Islamist groups.
Despite the gunfire and shelling, protesters swarmed into a Sanaa main street for Friday prayers, filling a long stretch of a multilane boulevard. A series of coffins bearing victims of the past days' fighting were carried through the crowd. The cleric delivering the prayer sermon said Saleh was trying to turn the popular uprising into a personal conflict.
The president "wants to overturn this revolution and show the world that it is a conflict between al-Ahmar and Saleh," Imam Taha al-Mutawakil told the crowd.
Keath reported from Cairo. Associated Press correspondents Sarah El Deeb and Ben Hubbard in Cairo also contributed to this report.