September 19, 2011
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni security forces killed 21 people, some shot by snipers from rooftops, in a crowd of demonstrators on Monday in the worst bloodshed seen since March against a protest movement demanding the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Medics said a further 113 protesters were wounded in the capital Sanaa, a day after 26 demonstrators in a massive anti-government march were shot dead.
Gunfire and shelling echoed sporadically across the divided capital as pro-Saleh troops and protesters clashed on Monday.
"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."
Government troops were firing into the air to scatter demonstrators, according to witnesses. But a Reuters reporter saw snipers shooting from rooftops and upper stories of buildings into the throng of demonstrators. Some of the deaths appeared to have been caused by rocket-propelled grenades.
Injured people were whisked on motorcycles to a makeshift hospital in protester-dubbed Change Square where people have been camped for eight months calling for an end to Saleh's 33 years of repressive rule in the poor Arabian Peninsula state.
The gunfire at protesters sparked a nearly one-hour firefight between General Ali Mohsen's First Armoured Division troops, which defected to the protest side some months ago, and government forces. Trucks full of Mohsen troops could be seen rushing from Change Square in the direction of the gunfire.
Mohsen's office said their base had seen flyovers by Yemeni warplanes, prompting it to fire missiles in response.
Yemen is politically paralyzed 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 U.S. and Saudi targets abroad.
The new bloodshed, shredding a weeks-long stand-off, was the worst since a similar massacre killed 52 people in mid-March.
At another hospital, ambulances were arriving with shattered windows and pockmarked with bullet holes. Copies of the Koran were laid on the chests of the dead.
Despite eight months of protests, and an assassination attempt in June that severely injured Saleh and sent him to Riyadh for surgical treatment, there has been little progress toward overcoming the political impasse, despite numerous diplomatic attempts to broker a transfer of power.
"I fear the situation will get out of hand. There is no new initiative to cool things off and the other political players doubt that Saleh will abide by any terms that are set," said Saadaldeen Talib, a former Yemeni opposition parliamentarian.
"Complete disintegration and chaos might come very soon."
U.N. mediator Jamal bin Omar landed in Sanaa on Monday to review the latest developments, the state news agency SABA said.
Abdullatif al-Zayani, head of a bloc of wealthy Gulf neighbors of Yemen, was expected to arrive in Sanaa 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 backpedaling.
Monday's violence erupted as protesters tried to push further into areas of Sanaa controlled by government forces after extending their camp overnight to a junction known locally as Kentucky Roundabout.
Abdulwasia Dahnai, 39, said as he lay on a hospital floor awaiting treatment: "We marched to Kentucky Roundabout. I heard gunshots from above, looked up and could see gunfire coming from the building. Next thing I knew I felt a gunshot in my side."
The area had previously marked the dividing line between parts of Sanaa 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!" organizers shouted over loudspeakers in Change Square.
Initially on Monday, anti-Saleh troops under General Mohsen had blocked the protesters' efforts to advance, in an apparent attempt to defuse the situation. Some Mohsen soldiers wound up among the injured at hospitals.
PROTESTER KILLINGS TO BE PROBED
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 U.N. 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 Sanaa. The government will investigate and hold accountable all those in charge of these acts."
Sanaa 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 kilometers after hundreds slept there overnight. 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 meters (1,650 feet) of the office 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."
Further south, militants suspected of links to al Qaeda 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 U.N. 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."