Troops fire on Yemen protesters

2011-04-04 18:04

Sana'a - Security forces and plainclothes gunmen opened fire on crowds of Yemenis marching through a southern city Monday, killing at least 12 and wounding dozens, in an intensifying crackdown against the uprising against the 32-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Witnesses described troops and gunmen, some on nearby rooftops, firing wildly on thousands of protesters who marched past the governor's headquarters in Taiz in the second straight day of violence in the southern city. Some - including elderly people - were trampled and injured as the crowds tried to flee, witnesses said.

Violence has swelled in recent days amid frustration over behind-the-scenes efforts to convince Saleh to step down in the face of a nearly two-month-old uprising.

The United States and European countries have been contacting Saleh and his opponents, trying to find a formula for the president to leave his post with a stable transfer of power, an opposition spokesperson said.

Saleh has been a key ally of the United States, which has given him millions in counter terrorism aid to fight al-Qaeda's branch in the country, which has plotted attacks on American soil.

So far, Washington has not publicly demanded that he step down, but the diplomatic effort was a clear sign that the Americans have decided the danger of turmoil and instability outweighs the risks if Saleh leaves.

Mustafa al-Sabri, a spokesperson for a coalition of opposition parties, said US and European diplomats who had been in contacts with Saleh had asked the opposition for their "vision" for a transition.

In response, the opposition over the weekend gave the Americans a proposal that Saleh step down and hand his powers to his vice president, who would then organize a process for rewriting the constitution and holding new elections, al-Sabri said.

But the 65-year-old president has dug in against the idea.

Tough line

On Sunday, Saleh took a tough line, saying no negotiations could be held without a "halt to all protests and the mutiny by some units in the military".

"We are prepared to explore the peaceful transfer of authority in the framework of the constitution. But arm-twisting will absolutely not work," he said.

He spoke on Monday to a gathering of pro-government tribesmen, vowing, "We are standing firm, and we will defend constitutional legitimacy by all means. We will stand as firm as mountains and will remain faithful to the people."

The US Embassy has not commented on its efforts, saying only in a statement over the weekend that "Saleh has publicly expressed his willingness to engage in a peaceful transition of power; the timing and form of this transition should be identified through dialogue and negotiation."

Saleh has managed to cling to power even after many of his top allies in the government and military abandoned him and joined the opposition because of the harshness of his crackdown on the protesters.

The opposition has been holding continual protest camps in main squares of the capital Sana'a and other cities around the country, and hundreds of thousands turned out for the biggest and most widespread marches yet on Friday. At least 97 people have been killed since demonstrations began February 11.

The violence in the mountain city of Taiz began when thousands of protesters (went) down its main street toward Freedom Square, where demonstrators have been camped out, surrounded by security forces.

As the march passed the governor's headquarters, troops stationed there blocked the procession, and clashes broke out, with some protesters throwing stones, witnesses said.

Brutal crackdown

Troops from the Republican Guard and the military police on nearby rooftops opened fire with live ammunition on the crowd and the marchers then turned to besiege the governor's headquarters, said Bushra al-Maqtara, an opposition activist in Taiz, and other witnesses.

"It was heavy gunfire from all directions. Some were firing from the rooftop of the governor's building," said one protester in the crowd, Omar al-Saqqaf. He said he saw military police load the bodies of two slain protesters into a car and then speed away.

At least 12 protesters were killed, said Hamoud Aqlan, a medical official at a clinic set up by protesters in Freedom Square. Dozens more were wounded by gunshots, mainly to the head, neck and chest, he said.

The military has clamped down on the city of nearly half a million, about 200km south of the capital, Sana'a. For a second day, tanks and armoured vehicles blocked entrances to the city to prevent outsiders from joining the protests.

They also surrounded Freedom Square, bottling up the thousands in the protest camp there and arresting anyone who tried to exit.

Saleh's top security official in Taiz, Abdullah Qiran, is accused by demonstrators of orchestrating some of the most brutal crackdowns against demonstrators, particularly in the southern port town of Aden, where he was previously stationed until his transfer several weeks ago.

On Sunday, police attacked a march by thousands of women in Taiz, sparking a battle with a separate group of male protesters.

Marches in solidarity with the Taiz protesters erupted in the cities of Mukalla, in the east, and Hodeida, on Yemen's western Red Sea coast.

Taghyir square

In Hodeida, protesters tried to march on a presidential palace in the city but were blocked by security forces, who opened fire with tear gas and live ammunition, said activist Abdel-Hafiz al-Abbasi.

He said three people were wounded.

Protesters massed in a Sana'a square they have renamed Taghyir, or Change, Square, said they too would hold a march Monday in support of Taiz. At the same time, pro-government gunmen in civilian clothes were seen taking up positions on a  boulevard in the capital, raising worries of a new confrontation.

Over the crisis, Saleh has offered to step down in 2013, when his term ends, or as early as the end of this year - if a transfer of power acceptable to him is reached. The opposition fears that Saleh is using the discussions over stepping down to stall for time - either to stay in power or to ensure he is succeeded by one of his sons, a prospect the opposition has staunchly rejected.

But the opposition is not united on their demands. A group of official opposition parties put forward the proposal that Saleh hand over power to his vice president, Abd Rabou Mansour.

The youth activists who have been organizing the protests are distinct from the opposition parties - and many of them have refused the proposal, believing that it would mean an extended transition that would keep Saleh in power for a longer time.

"We refuse any initiative or proposal that doesn't explicitly state the immediate departure of the president and his sons. That is a central issue that we will not put aside," said Adnan al-Odeini, an activist leader of the protests in Sana'a.

- AP
Read more on:    ali abdullah saleh  |  yemen  |  uprisings  |  yemen protests
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