Dissident Yemeni generals on Sunday accused the embattled president of surrendering Abyan province to "terrorists" after suspected Al Qaeda militants took its capital, and called for others to defect.
A security official said that more than 200 suspected Al Qaeda gunmen have wrested control of the south Yemen city of Zinjibar, Abyan’s capital, in fighting that has left 21 dead.
In "Statement Number One," the generals led by General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh of "surrendering Abyan to an armed terrorist group" and called "on the forces of the army to join the peaceful popular revolution."
They also called on the army to fight the "terrorists" in Abyan.
Several generals, including Mr. Ahmar who commands troops that control part of Sanaa, have pledged support for protesters calling for Mr. Saleh to quit.
But the Republican Guards and other elite units commanded by president Saleh family members have remained loyal.
The security official and witnesses said Zinjibar had fallen to militants who may be Al Qaeda fighters.
The suspected Al Qaeda fighters "were able to gain control of the city of Zinjibar… and took over all government facilities, "except for the headquarters of the 25th mechanized brigade, which is besieged by militants, the security official said.
Witnesses said that gunmen were still battling members of the besieged brigade.
"We will fight until the last bullet, and we will not surrender to the gunmen who killed our colleagues," a brigade officer said, reached by telephone.
A medic said that five civilians were killed and 15 wounded in shelling between the brigade and suspected Al Qaeda fighters on Sunday.
Residents reported heavy fighting in the city on Friday and Saturday, and said the attackers had freed dozens of prisoners from the main jail in Zinjibar.
One witness said on condition of anonymity that the gunmen executed soldiers who surrendered, and that residents were not able to bury them.
"Most of the residents of Zinjibar have left," another said.
Nazir Ahmed Said, one of those who fled to Aden, the south’s main city, told AFP he left because Zinjibar "is under the control of gunmen who say they are from Al Qaeda."
The security official estimated that more than 200 militants had attacked the city.
"The lack of concern from the authorities is unfortunate," he said, adding that "the leadership in Abyan province left the area before it exploded."
He was among the last security officials to quit the city, he said.
Five soldiers and a civilian were killed on Friday, two other security officials said, and Zinjibar residents said they found the bodies of 10 soldiers, bringing the toll from the fighting there to at least 21.
One official said that another two soldiers were killed on Friday in clashes with suspected Al Qaeda fighters in the town of Loder, also in Abyan province.
In a statement, the Common Forum parliamentary opposition coalition blamed Mr. Saleh for the situation in Zinjibar, but said he had "delivered Zinjibar to groups that he has formed and armed, to continue to utilize the specter of Al Qaeda to frighten regional and international parties."
Mr. Saleh has since January faced protests calling for him to quit office after 33 years in power.
On May 22, he refused to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored accord that would have seen him cede power within 30 days in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
The following day, fighting erupted in Sanaa between security forces and followers of opposition tribal chief Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, who heads the powerful Hashid federation.
Tribal chieftain Ahmar’s fighters seized various government buildings during the clashes between May 23 and 26, but on Sunday began vacating them following tribal mediation.
Tribesmen loyal to tribal leader Ahmar have "begun the evacuation of government buildings that they control and are surrendering them to the mediation committee," mediator Sheikh Abdullah Badr al-Din told AFP.
Several buildings were heavily damaged in al-Hasaba area where the fighting was centered, including Mr. Ahmar’s residence, the interior ministry, the official news agency Saba and the offices of the Yemenia national airline, an AFP correspondent said.
In other areas of Sanaa, roadblocks were set up by forces loyal to the president and by dissident army units, with both deploying heavy armor and machine guns.
Meanwhile, police shot dead three anti-regime protesters and wounded dozens more in Yemen’s second largest city of Taez in the south on Sunday, medics said.
The "Youth of the Revolution" group said some 3,000 people gathered outside a police station to demand the release of a detained protester and that police fired into the crowd when they refused to leave.