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Yemen protest violence seen as start of more intense confrontation

Two were killed and hundreds injured Saturday after security forces loyal to Yemen's 32-year President Ali Abdullah Saleh confronted protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition.

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On Friday John Brennan, counterterrorism specialist and assistant to President Obama, stated that “all sectors of the Yemeni opposition should respond constructively to President Saleh’s call to engage in a serious dialogue to end the current impasse.”

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Early morning attack

Security forces launched the attack on protesters after the predawn Al-Fajr prayer, when many protesters were still sleeping in their tents.

“We had just finished praying when the army trucks attacked us, at first with water and tear gas,” said Sadeq Abdul Mohammed, a Sanaa resident bleeding from the head after being shot with a rubber bullet. “Then they threw gas grenades and then opened fire with both rubber bullets and live ammunition."

A mosque next to the university, which has acted as a makeshift hospital when violence has broken out, overflowed with hundreds of injured demonstrators. Men sprawled on the ground in the area normally designated for prayers, appearing to have seizures after the military fired gas at them.

“Whatever they shot at us was not natural. What came out of those grenades was more than tear gas,” said Amr Al-Faig, who lay among the injured at the mosque.

At least two types of the tear gas used were produced in Wyoming, according to labels visible on discarded remnants.

According to a statement from a Ministry of Interior official, riot police were not carrying live ammunition, under direct orders not to do so. Residents had warned that if the police did not push back the demonstrators expanding tent area, that they would take matters in their own hands, the official stated.

Volleys of concrete chunks

After the initial attack, thousands of protesters stormed the area where the military was stationed. Opposition demonstrators, banned from bringing weapons onto university premises and searched at multiple checkpoints, tore apart sidewalks and launched volleys of concrete chunks at security forces and government loyalists who joined the fight from an adjacent street.

For more than three hours, clouds of tear gas hung over the intersection where the clash took place. Gunfire rang out constantly as protesters carried their wounded to the mosque.

Security forces, numbering in the hundreds, eventually retreated shortly before 9 a.m. Throngs of demonstrators continued to rush to the scene as convoys of trucks departed.

On Feb. 24, Mr. Saleh had issued orders for police to protect demonstrators. For nearly two weeks, protests took place without violence, but on Tuesday, security forces opened fire as demonstrators, killing one.

Renewed doubts about the state security’s willingness to protect protesters began again on Friday night, when a number of demonstrators claimed to have seen a growing number of visibly armed “baltagea,” or thugs, gathering at the periphery of the university.

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