SANAA, Yemen – Yemen's government and armed tribesmen seeking President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster have agreed to a temporary cease-fire to allow for negotiations after five days of street clashes that killed at least 124 people, a mediator said Saturday.
There were no signs of goodwill from either side, however, to indicate the negotiations were being taken seriously. The head of Yemen's most powerful tribal federation called on the Republican Guard and other security forces to abandon Saleh and join protesters who have been calling on the ruler of nearly 33 years to step down. And the government issued an arrest warrant for the tribal leader.
In a letter to security forces, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, head of the Hashid tribal confederation, called on the army to help "get rid of this regime and be among the makers of the change that the people are calling for."
The cease-fire and negotiations come at a critical moment in Yemen's three-month old crisis and will likely determine whether the mostly peaceful street protests calling for change give way to more battles between security forces and tribal militias like the ones that raged in the past week.
The fighting broke out Monday after government forces attempted to storm al-Ahmar's compound in the heart of the capital, Sanaa. Armed tribesmen loyal to al-Ahmar fought back, seizing a number of government buildings.
The fighting then spread outside the capital, with tribesmen capturing two military posts north of Sanaa Saturday before the sides reached a temporary cease-fire.
One mediator said Saturday the two sides will discuss terms for a withdrawal of tribal fighters from at least nine government ministries they occupied during the fighting. The truce was set to expire Saturday evening, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media. No clashes were reported Saturday afternoon.
Even as talks were supposed to get under way, however, Yemeni authorities issued an arrest warrant for al-Ahmar and other tribal leaders.
Experts say the uprising's future will be determined by the number of tribes and security forces that turn against Saleh. Many already have, including al-Ahmar's Hashid confederation, to which Saleh's tribe belongs. Some army units have also left Saleh to back the protesters, though they have not joined the fight against his forces.
Al-Ahmar's letter — published online and read aloud and distributed at meetings with tribal leaders — called on others to leave Saleh.
"The enemy of all these people is Saleh, who has weighed heavily upon our people for all these years and confiscated the simplest of Yemeni citizens' rights to serve the interests of Saleh, his sons and his family," he wrote.
He called on soldiers not to "sacrifice themselves for one individual or family" and to stand with the people in choosing "change and the dream of a better future."
It remains unclear if al-Ahmar's letter will have any effect. Much of Saleh's power base is made up of childhood friends and family members he placed in high-level security posts, decreasing the chances of defection. Yemen's powerful Republican Guard, which al-Ahmar called on specifically, is commanded by one of Saleh's sons and has remained loyal to the president as other military units have defected.
The week's clashes followed a breakdown in efforts by Yemen's Gulf Arab neighbors to negotiate an end to the crisis. The deal would have required Saleh to step down in exchange for immunity from prosecution, but he balked at signing.
The Hashid turned against Saleh two months ago, throwing its weight behind the protesters. But before this week, it had kept its well-armed fighters on the sidelines.