Government forces kill 24 protesters in Yemen
Chances of deal to shift power suffer setback
SANA, Yemen - Firing from rooftops and the back of pickup trucks, Yemeni security forces turned heavy-caliber machine guns and other weapons on demonstrators here yesterday, setting off battles between army defectors and forces loyal to the government in the worst day of violence in the capital since March.
The violence left at least 24 demonstrators dead and more than 200 wounded in Sana, where tens of thousand of protesters had gathered, and threatened to scuttle hopes for an accord between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opponents. The sides have been locked in a standoff for months over demands that he step down and transfer power.
The fighting also raised the prospect of open and more intense sparring among factions of Yemen’s divided military, which many here fear could lead to civil war.
The political paralysis already has sapped the weak central government in a country whose untamed reaches have become a base for Islamist militants linked to Al Qaeda. Conflict has raged in outlying provinces for months. The vacuum of authority has concerned US officials, who have struck at Al Qaeda cells with drone aircraft run by the CIA.
Saleh remains in Saudi Arabia, where he has been recuperating from wounds suffered in a bomb attack on the presidential palace in June.
The violence yesterday began as antigovernment demonstrators attempted to march for the first time in months beyond the part of Sana where they have camped in a sit-in under the protection of Major General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, leader of the First Armored Division and a staunch opponent of the president.
More than 100,000 protesters massed around the state radio building and government offices, the Associated Press reported, citing witnesses.
As they began to march, men in civilian clothes opened fire from rooftops, the protesters said, and government security forces shot at them from a Ministry of Electricity building and, using machine guns, from the backs of pickup trucks. The gunfire lasted about an hour.
A separate group of protesters marching on what is known as the Ring Road that runs around the capital was met with gunfire and tear gas as soon as it left the area controlled by the First Armored Division, an attack that continued into the evening. “I swear to God what happened today is a horrible massacre, and we are not able to even describe it that the regime would use this violence against peaceful protesters,’’ said Bassem al-Sharjabi, a lawyer who is one of the protest leaders. “This is a crime against humanity. We demand from the international community to intervene to stop these crimes.’’
Protesters said the army division that opened fire on them with heavy weapons was under the command of General Yahya Saleh, nephew of the president and chief of central security forces.
Yemen’s government issued several online statements accusing the protesters of staging an illegal march and saying that members of the Islamist political party started the attacks.
The attack on the protesters reflected the recent spike in tensions between the president’s security forces and the tribesmen loyal to his main rivals, the Ahmar family, who are not related to Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar.
In the past week, explosions rocked the capital, and tribesmen loyal to the Ahmar family and the president’s forces resumed fighting. There were fears that the latest attack on the protesters would lead to more such violence. Loud explosions and gunfire echoed across Sana into the night, though it was not clear from where it came.
The sit-in has woven itself into the fabric of the city. Protesters normally stay within its boundaries or stage marches within the territory controlled by al-Ahmar, who announced his support for the protesters in March after more than 52 demonstrators were killed by snipers linked to the government. Al-Ahmar’s defection tore apart the Yemeni government, and negotiations began days later in an effort to force Saleh to give up power, but the president has repeatedly refused to sign any agreement.
It was unclear how yesterday’s violence would affect the delicate political balance in Yemen. President Saleh recently issued a decree authorizing his deputy to negotiate and sign a transfer-of-power agreement, a move that could lead to early presidential elections. Yemen’s official opposition, the JMP, has approached the announcement with caution but has not rejected it, indicating that there may be a chance for a deal.
But one former Yemeni official, Jamila Raja, said that chances are now slim. “I think its aborting all the efforts for reconciliation and to continue on with the dialogue,’’ said Raja, an adviser to the Foreign Ministry who resigned her position in the spring over the violence used against the protesters.
Another official, Yemen’s Ambassador to Spain, Mutapha Noman, said that the violence was a deliberate attempt to wreck any plans for a peaceful transfer of power. “There are forces trying to sabotage all the attempts to reach a peaceful end to the miseries Yemen is witnessing for the past eight months,’’ Noman said. “Whoever the responsible is, they will not go free.’’