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.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
An anti-government protester shouted slogans demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, following clashes with Yemeni police in Sanaa, Yemen on Saturday. Yemeni security forces stormed a square early Saturday where thousands of pro-democracy protesters have been camped out for the past month.

Fierce violence erupted early Saturday morning in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, marking what many here say is a turn toward far more violent confrontations between security forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the widening collection of those opposed to his rule.

In an early morning attack, security forces attempted to forcibly disperse thousands of protesters at Sanaa University with live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas, injuring hundreds and killing two, according to witnesses and medical workers.

On Friday, the largest anti-government protest yet took place in the capital, with nearly 100,000 demonstrators gathering to call for the immediate resignation of Mr. Saleh, the 32-year leader who is a key US ally in the fight against Al Qaeda.

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Sanaa’s rapidly expanding opposition, which has grown from hundreds of university students to tens of thousands of youth, tribesmen, Islamists, and opposition party members in the past month, has drastically increased pressure on Mr. Saleh to either confront the crowds or acquiesce to their demands. And now, with the possibility that armed tribesmen are heading into Sanaa from far-flung regions, it appears that Saleh has chosen to confront the crowds violently.

“The tribes are coming to Sanaa now, and they’re not like the protesters,” said Sanaa University student Abdullah Farhan. “This is going to be revenge – and they’re all armed.”

Among those pronounced dead was Ahmed al-Mura’ily, a well-known poet and tribesman from Marib, where tribes have clashed with government forces on numerous occasions in recent years. His death has heightened fears of violent reprisal from tribes.

A council of tribes from Marib and al-Jawf condemned the attacks early Saturday morning and called on donor countries to also denounce the violence.

Anger at international community

At least 32 have been killed since Feb. 16. On Saturday, demonstrators at the university expressed anger towards the international community for not being more vocal on the violence taking place.

In recent days, both the EU and US issued firm support for Mr. Saleh’s proposed constitutional changes, which were rejected by opposition groups.

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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.”

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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