Activist: Yemen on a knife edge

2011-09-19 13:30

Sana’a - Pro-government snipers firing from rooftops in Yemen's capital killed three people in a crowd of protesters on Monday demanding the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, witnesses said, in escalating violence that has shattered an uneasy stalemate.

Dozens were injured in the latest clashes between pro-Saleh troops and protesters, and sporadic gunfire and shelling echoed across Sana’a a day after 26 demonstrators were shot dead during a massive anti-government march.

The latest killings occurred as government troops fired in the air to scatter demonstrators, according to witnesses. A Reuters reporter saw snipers shooting from rooftops and upper stories of buildings into the throng of demonstrators.

Injured people were whisked on motorcycles to a makeshift hospital in protester-dubbed Change Square where people have been camped for eight months demanding an end to Saleh's 33 years of repressive rule in the poor Arabian Peninsula state.

Boy shot straight through the head

One man was pronounced dead while dozens more had a variety of gunshot wounds, according to a Reuters witness at the hospital. Doctors said a third person died at another hospital.

"Help me, oh my God look at this slaughter!" said the father of a boy who died from a gunshot wound to the head.

"We were just in the car on Hayel Street (near the fighting). I stepped out to get some food and left my two boys in the car and I heard the older one scream. The little one was shot straight through the head."

Yemen is politically paralysed as Saleh, now being treated in Saudi Arabia for wounds suffered in an assassination attempt, clings to power despite mass nationwide protests.

The turmoil could strengthen the Yemen branch of al-Qaeda and heighten the risk of militant attacks on US and Saudi targets abroad.

Monday's violence erupted as protesters tried to push further into areas of Sana’a controlled by government forces after extending their camp overnight to a junction known locally as Kentucky Roundabout.

Defected general

The area had previously marked the dividing line between parts of Sana’a held by loyalist troops and defected forces.

"The thugs are hurting our brothers. We will go, the road is open. The free men will meet at Kentucky Roundabout!" organisers shouted over loudspeakers in Change Square.

Earlier on Monday, troops belonging to defected General Ali Mohsen, who threw his support behind the anti-Saleh movement some months ago, blocked the protesters' efforts to advance, in an apparent attempt to defuse the situation. Some Mohsen soldiers were among the injured at the hospital.

The new bloodshed, shredding a weeks-long stand-off, was the worst in recent months. Hundreds of people were wounded too when security forces fired on protesters who charged police lines.

Yemen pledges to probe killings

In Geneva on Monday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr Abdullah Al-Qirbi said Sunday's bloodshed would be investigated and perpetrators would be prosecuted.

In a speech to the UN Human Rights Council, he said: "The government of Yemen expresses its sorrow and condemnation for all acts of violence and bloodshed as those that happened yesterday in Sana’a.

The government will investigate and hold accountable all those in charge of these acts."

UN mediator Jamal bin Omar landed in Sana’a on Monday to review the latest developments, the state news agency Saba said.

Abdullatif al-Zayani, head of a bloc of wealthy Gulf neighbours of Yemen, was expected to arrive in the capital later on Monday to try again to win acceptance of a Gulf plan for a transition of power away from Saleh that the president came close to accepting on three occasions before backpedalling.

Sana’a for months has been split between Mohsen's breakaway troops and Saleh loyalist forces in a maze of checkpoints, roadblocks and armoured vehicles that many worry could quickly tip inflamed tensions into military confrontation.

Protesters on Monday managed to extend the territory of their camp by around one km after hundreds slept there overnight. Ali Mohsen's troops entered the area and were fortifying it with sandbags.

The new staked-out area brought protesters and troops backing them within 500 metres of Ahmed Ali Saleh, the president's son and head of the Republican Guard units loyal to the government.

"I will go back out today once the doctors check the wound," said Dhuyazen al-Shiah, 23, whose eye was bandaged after bullet fragments hit his face in Sunday's clashes.

"I do this because I was tired of living with no dignity. I worked as a smuggler through Saudi Arabia because I couldn't find a job here. I am committed to this now. I'll keep going and either succeed or I'll die."

On a knife edge

Further south, militants suspected of al-Qaeda links, clashed with the army in the Abyan provincial capital of Zinjibar, just over a week after Yemen declared its troops had "liberated" the city from Islamist fighters.

Six militants were killed and three soldiers wounded in the fighting in the east of Zinjibar, a security official and residents said on Monday.

"Yemen is on a knife edge," Peter Splinter of human rights group Amnesty International told the top UN human rights forum in Geneva, adding the risk of civil war was growing.

"Those who have been protesting peacefully for change are increasingly frustrated by the political deadlock."

In Taiz, another hotbed of anti-government protests, opposition sources said there was heavy shelling overnight by security forces after they too held large rallies on Sunday.

In the southern port city of Aden, witnesses said some residents were burning cars and blocking roads with rocks, frustrated by long hours without electricity as temperatures rose to 54°C.