SANAA, Yemen — Yemen's capital city sank toward anarchy Tuesday as rival armies battled in a neighborhood of middle-class homes and government offices in the worst violence to sweep this city since anti-government demonstrations began nearly four months ago.
Forces loyal to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh shelled the compound of the country's leading tribal sheikh, while forces loyal to Sheikh Sadeq al Ahmar stormed nearby government buildings.
By Tuesday evening, the Interior Ministry was in flames and the Ministry of Industry and the offices of Yemenia Airlines and the Saba news agency were severely damaged. Moving around the city was nearly impossible, and many people were trapped away from their homes as night fell.
At least 38 people were killed Tuesday, including one tribal sheikh taking part in mediation efforts at Ahmar's house.
"It is total war," said one resident of the district where Ahmar's house is located, describing both sides as leveling heavy artillery and rocket-propelled grenades at one another. "It is even worse than yesterday."
Protesters who have occupied a sprawling camp near the entrance to Sanaa University since February were not involved in the combat, but the sit-in's festive atmosphere gave way to anxiety.
"We are worried, of course, we are worried," said Mohamed Nasser, one of the protest movement's leaders. "If they attack the sit-in, who will protect us?"
What touched off the fighting remained unclear. On Sunday, Saleh refused to sign an agreement, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, that would have led to his exit from power after 32 years in the presidency. But that refusal wasn't seen as the direct cause of the fighting.