Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
News, September 2011
54 Yemeni Unarmed Protesters Killed by Republican Guards
September 19, 2011
Clashes escalate in Yemen after crackdown
By Erika Solomon, Mon Sep 19, 2011 5:00pm EDT
SANAA (Reuters) -
At least 54 people were killed over two days in the deadliest crackdown yet on pro-democracy protesters in Sanaa, triggering fierce gunbattles Monday between soldiers who had defected to the opposition and those loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Opposition forces said they agreed a truce with the government, though several rounds of gunfire and an explosion were heard in the Yemeni capital and a government official said the two sides were still working on a ceasefire deal.
The military confrontation between opposition forces loyal to defected General Ali Mohsen and government troops was triggered by a government crackdown on two days of protests, threatening a new and even more violent phase in the eight-month standoff in Yemen.
Demonstrators ratcheted up their protests Sunday to try to break a stalemate, and government forces responded with heavy fire, while snipers shot at protesters from rooftops.
At least 28 people were killed Monday, raising the death toll to 54 over two days.
Witnesses said government forces had traded heavy rifle and missile fire with troops loyal to Mohsen, who defected following an earlier crackdown in March which killed 52 people.
An escalation into outright military confrontation in Sanaa has been a major concern for many in Yemen, who fear this will make it even harder to reach a political settlement under which Saleh would hand over power.
"Help me, oh my God look at this slaughter!" said a man carrying the bloodied body of his small child, killed by gunfire. "We were just in the car ... I stepped out to get some food and left my two boys in the car. I heard the older one scream. My little one was shot straight through the head."
"This is only going to get worse," one man shouted as he fled a new protest camp, staked out by protesters Sunday night and attacked by snipers Monday. Troops loyal to Mohsen jumped in trucks and sped toward the heavy cracks of gunfire.
"We will come back to protest later. I am afraid, but this is worth dying for," the man said. He was among hundreds rushing back to the relative safety of protesters' original sit-in area, dubbed Change Square, where they have camped out for 8 months to demand an end to Saleh's 33-year rule.
Diplomats and Yemeni politicians scrambled Monday to speed up a long-stalled transition plan under which Saleh, who is recovering in neighboring Saudi Arabia from a June assassination attempt, would hand over power
A source in Yemen's political opposition said they were meeting with government officials and diplomats to try and push through a deal. U.N. mediator Jamal bin Omar and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdbullatif al-Zayani arrived in Sanaa Monday and were expected to join the talks.
Zayani was expected to push for the signing of a Gulf-brokered transition plan which Saleh backed out of three times before.
"There's a possibility of trying to push through the Gulf plan for signing this week," an opposition source said.
Saleh met Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Monday, the Saudi state news agency SPA reported. It said only that the Yemeni president had expressed his thanks for the king's hospitality.
SOME KILLED BY ROCKET-PROPELLED GRENADES
Medics said 187 protesters were wounded Monday after a dramatic escalation in violence which began with a huge anti-government march Sunday. At least 400 protesters and police have died since the revolt began eight months ago.
Protesters had been planning to ratchet up demonstrations this week. They said they expected a spike in bloodshed as they pushed their marches into areas surrounded by government troops in a bid to re-energize a languishing protest movement.
"We have known that this regime would kill its citizens," said Manea al-Mattari, from a leading council of youth activists. "But we know we have to do this, let our blood spill so the world notices how much Yemenis want their freedom."
Government troops closed down a southern entrance to Sanaa in the evening, a witness said, a move likely aimed at stopping armed tribesmen who back the opposition from entering the city.
The violence Monday began when troops fired at an area seized by protesters Sunday night to force them back to Change Square. A Reuters reporter saw snipers shooting from rooftops 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 mosque transformed into a makeshift hospital, where ambulances were arriving with shattered windows and pockmarked with bullet holes. Copies of the Koran were laid on the chests of the dead.
As shelling and gunfire continued in Sanaa, pro-opposition tribesmen said clashes had also surged in Arhab, a tribal area north of the capital, after they attacked a military base there.
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.
Saadaldeen Talib, a former opposition parliamentarian, said he was concerned "complete disintegration and chaos might come very soon."
"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," he said.
Mattari, of the youth council, said many protesters would continue to escalate protests even if a Gulf deal was signed: "We don't accept this deal, we'll keep escalating. The opposition can accept this anyways after what's happened."
PROTESTER KILLINGS TO BE PROBED
In Geneva Monday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr 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 armored vehicles.
Protesters Monday managed to extend the territory of their camp by around one kilometer 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 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."
(Additional reporting by Khaled al-Mahdy in Sanaa, Dhuyazen Mukhashaf in Aden, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Isabel Coles and Angus McDowall in Dubai; Writing by Amran Abocar; Editing by Myra MacDonald)
Yemen protesters storm elite military base; 50 die
By AHMED AL-HAJ and HAMZA HENDAWI Associated Press
Sep 19, 2011, 4:20 PM EDT
SANAA, Yemen (AP) --
Thousands of protesters backed by military defectors seized a base of the elite Republican Guards on Monday, weakening the control of Yemen's embattled president over this poor, fractured Arab nation. His forces fired on unarmed demonstrators elsewhere in the capital, killing scores, wounding hundreds and sparking international condemnation.
The protesters, joined by soldiers from the renegade 1st Armored Division, stormed the base without firing a single shot, according to witnesses and security officials. Some carried sticks and rocks. They used sandbags to erect barricades to protect their comrades from the possibility of weapons fire from inside the base, but none came and the Republican Guards eventually fled, leaving their weapons behind.
Although the base was not particularly large - the Republican Guards have bigger ones in the capital and elsewhere in Yemen - its capture buoyed the protesters' spirits and signaled what could be the start of the collapse of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year-old regime.
"It was unbelievable," said protester Ameen Ali Saleh of storming the base on the west side of the major al-Zubairy road, which runs through the heart of Sanaa. "We acted like it was us who had the weapons, not the soldiers."
"Now the remainder of the regime will finally crumble," said another demonstrator, Mohammed al-Wasaby. "Our will is more effective than weapons. The soldiers loyal to Saleh just ran away."
Saleh went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after a June attack on his Sanaa compound and has not returned to Yemen, but has resisted calls to resign.
A final showdown may well pit the Republican Guards, led by Saleh's son and heir apparent Ahmed, against the soldiers of the 1st Armored Division, another elite outfit that has fought in all of Yemen's wars over the past two decades, and their tribal allies in the capital.
The Republican Guards and the Special Forces, also led by the president's son, have long been thought to be the regime's last line of defense against the seven-month-old uprising.
The storming of the base capped two days of clashes in the capital that have left at least 50 people dead and nearly 1,000 injured, mostly demonstrators.
Government forces used snipers stationed on rooftops, anti-aircraft guns, rocket propelled grenades and mortars against the unarmed protesters. Witnesses and security officials described scenes of mutilated bodies, some torn apart. An infant girl, a 14-year-old boy and three rebel soldiers were among the at least 23 people killed on Monday.
"It is over," concluded protest leader Abdul-Hadi al-Azzai. "The Ali Abdullah Saleh regime is finished. How can you negotiate while massacres are ongoing? The world is silent."
The violence led authorities to close Sanaa's airport and order four flights to go instead to the southern port city of Aden, according to an airport official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
But even Aden did not escape bloodshed. Three protesters were wounded in clashes with government forces, witnesses there said.
In the southern city of Taiz, at least four protesters were killed and 40 others were wounded Monday in clashes between anti-regime demonstrators and security forces, according to witnesses.
The latest violence was born partly out of frustration after Saleh shattered hopes raised by the U.S. last week that he was about to relinquish power. The United States once saw Saleh as a key ally in the battle against al-Qaida, but withdrew its support for him as the protests gained strength.
Much is at stake in Yemen for the United States, its Gulf Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, and the West.
Yemen is close to the major oil fields of the Gulf region and overlooks key shipping lanes in the Red and Arabian seas. It is home to one of the world's most dangerous al-Qaida branches, whose militants have staged or inspired a series of attacks on U.S. territory. Already, the chaos in Yemen has allowed al-Qaida militants to capture and hold a string of towns in the nearly lawless south of the country.
Monday's events could significantly help the protesters' cause against the regime, but it is also likely to push Yemen toward civil war or to break up along tribal or regional lines.
The clashes coincided with a flurry of diplomatic activity designed to resolve the crisis.
U.N. envoy Gamal bin Omar and Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, secretary-general of a regional alliance that groups Yemen's six Gulf Arab neighbors, were in Yemen on Monday. Saleh and King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, met in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
"The situation is tense. It can't continue like this. This is a sign of deep crisis," bin Omar told The Associated Press.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned "the excessive use of force by government security forces against unarmed protesters" and called on all sides "to exercise utmost restraint and desist from provocative actions," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The U.S. Embassy said it regretted the bloodshed and called on all parties to "refrain from actions that provoke further violence."
"The United States believes that now is the time for an immediate, peaceful and orderly transition," Washington's envoy to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, said in Geneva. Those responsible for abuses against civilians, she said, needed to be brought to justice as part of a reform process.
Yemen's foreign minister, Abubakr al-Qirbi, said the government was committed to political reforms, but rejected claims of excessive force by police and pro-government militia, accusing some opposition groups of terrorist activity.
Troops from the Republican Guards and the 1st Armored Division were engaged in skirmishes for most of Monday.
"I have been hearing heavy explosions and gunshots since morning," said Atiaf Alwazir, a 31-year-old blogger from Sanaa. Soldiers from the 1st Armored Division soldiers, she said, returned fire, giving pro-regime forces "an excuse to shoot at peaceful protesters."
The 1st Armored Division, along with its commander, mutinied and joined the protesters about six months ago. Its mutiny was followed by a series of high-profile defections that left the president largely isolated but did not weaken his resolve to stay in office.
Last Thursday, the U.S. State Department raised expectations by predicting Saleh would relinquish power within a week under a Gulf-mediated, U.S.-backed deal that would grant him immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down. But violence flared anew after Saleh said he had asked Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to negotiate further.
Saleh has already backed away three times from signing the deal, and many believe this move is the latest of many delaying tactics.
His departure for Saudi Arabia in June left the country without an effective political leadership. Hadi took over the reins of power but his authority appeared to pale in comparison to that of the president's son, two powerful nephews as well as the tribal leaders who took the side of the protesters.
Hendawi reported from Cairo. AP correspondents Maggie Michael and Aya Batrawy in Cairo and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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