SANAA (Reuters) - The line between protesters and mutinying soldiers backing them is becoming increasingly blurred in Yemen’s eight-month revolt against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule, raising the risk of a more violent conflict that may presage civil war.
As they march past troops at the ready holding machine guns, rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Yemeni protesters holding up peace signs are joined by groups of armed deserters.
“There are definitely more of them with us these days. I was surprised how many soldiers were around today. I wonder if something is happening,” said Omar, a 20-year-old student who looks warily over his shoulder at dozens of troops standing by.
Around Omar, protesters shout “Peaceful, peaceful, no to civil war.” In the alleys of the capital Sanaa, near the march, anti-Saleh forces wait in armoured trucks with machine guns.
The city is carved into enclaves between soldiers loyal to Saleh and troops following a general who backs the opposition, and is still reeling from a week of shelling and shooting which killed more than 100 people.
Global powers have been pressing Saleh to sign a Gulf-mediated deal to hand over power to stem spreading chaos in Yemen, a haven for al Qaeda militants and neighbour to the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.
Saleh returned to Yemen last week after spending three months in Riyadh recovering from an assassination attempt.
Until recently, the line was clear. Civilians protested against the government while General Ali Mohsen’s soldiers watched on from afar, a buffer against attack.
But protesters, frustrated by months of political deadlock, left Mohsen’s demarcated zone last week and marched into government-held territory flanked by the general’s forces.
For diplomats trying to negotiate a long-stalled peace deal, the threat of military escalation was their worst nightmare.
Despite a return to tenuous calm, last week’s fighting already derailed one near deal, and it has further unsettled a volatile, impoverished nation where al Qaeda is seeking to gain a larger foothold amid the unrest.
In last week’s violent collision, protesters suffered most of the deaths and casualties.
“They can protect us, I believe that,” Omar said, his voice shaking. “Maybe it’s dangerous to have them here, but it is dangerous not to have them too. I just hope this won’t cause more trouble.”
Many observers accuse General Mohsen and the powerful tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar, both formerly among the government elite, of exploiting the protesters by allowing them to march into the danger zone that ignited a massive battle.
“This is part of the hijacking of the youth revolution,” said Yemeni analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani. “The day the big massacres took place the youth were clearly interspersed with a number of First Armoured Division (Mohsen) fighters.”
Diplomats say that both Mohsen’s forces and divisions led by Saleh’s son and nephew are testing the waters to see who would prevail should they ditch political transition plans that would mean both government and opposition leaders could see their grip on power loosened.
Protesters refuse to believe they are merely pawns.
“The soldiers are here for us, to protect us and our revolution,” said unemployed protester Abdelsalam, 40, waving to soldiers who have joined the march.
“We need them,” he says, echoing a popular sentiment in Change Square, the four-kilometre encampment that is the heart of Yemen’s protests.
But only last week, the camp was dotted with pools of blood and pocked-marked by bullets. Protesters were hit by mortar fire and attacked by snipers lurking on rooftops.
“We hope if they are around they can scare away the snipers. But then, they are also a target, so maybe they are a risky form of protection,” laughs protester Mohammed Mashni, 34. “I just don’t think we have any other choice.”
Along the rows of ramshackle plastic tents in Change Square, soldiers with rifles slung on their backs sit cross-legged and share lunch with protesters.
Armed Mohsen troops zip past the crowds on trucks with mounted automatic rifles. When the imam calls out to the crowd, soldiers lay their weapons on mats and pray with the protesters.
“We are part of the peaceful revolution, we are not here to fight” says Abdullah, a scrawny 19-year-old soldier, sitting in a tent with a group of young protesters. As he gets up to leave, he picks up his rifle, and slings a long bullet-belt across his chest.
His companion, a young soldier Rashad Shirayi is less diplomatic, “If the president wants war, he’ll get it.”
Editing by Reed Stevenson and Louise Ireland