Arab leaders turn to deadly force to crush rebellions

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2011 

Mechanical diggers are seen at the base of the Pearl Square monument in Manama, Bahrain in preparation for tearing it down.

AP PHOTO/BAHRAIN TV VIA APTN

CAIRO — Violence shook the Middle East on Friday after security forces attacked protesters in Yemen and Syria, leaving at least 40 dead in Yemen and three in Syria, as the region's authoritarian regimes turned to deadly force to stop pro-democracy uprisings.

President Barack Obama condemned the violence in Yemen, but his 110-word written statement issued to reporters was milder than the 1,257-word denunciation of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that he delivered on national television from the White House.

Human rights advocates decried what they said was a double standard in the treatment of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally, and Gadhafi, a longtime villain in the West and a pariah in much of the Arab world and whose armed forces face the prospect of imminent Western attack.

"We're very surprised that the international community is turning away from what's happening in Yemen. They're leaving us in the line of fire of a criminal," said Khaled Ayesh Abdullah, 30, the executive manager of the National Forum for Human Rights, a Yemeni nonprofit in the Hodaida province. "What's happening in Yemen is the definition of a massacre . . . They're using the same tactics and weapons that Gadhafi is using against his people."

Friday's crowds in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere were some of the biggest yet in the two-month long uprising. Video recorded in southern Syria and Yemen's capital, Sanaa, showed similar events: security forces attacking unarmed protesters who'd staged peaceful gatherings to demand the ouster of their unelected leaders.

"I wouldn't even call this a revolution. It's just a peaceful protest, and it was faced with live ammunition and extreme force. What happened today was a massacre," said Abdul Rashid al Faqih, 29, a human rights activist reached by phone in Sanaa.

Yemeni President Saleh declared a state of emergency after his security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters. TV news footage of a main hospital showed overwhelmed doctors moving frantically among their dying patients.

"This is really murder!" an unnamed doctor yells in one video, gesturing to a writhing, bloodied man. "We are calling on the world to come and see!"

"I saw 18 dead bodies, all shot with live ammunition, and I was informed that the injured were taken to five other hospitals around the city because the hospital wasn't big enough to hold all the wounded from today's clashes," Atiaf al Wazir, 31, a Yemeni-American blogger and activist said by telephone from Sanaa.

Arabic-language news reports cited medical sources as saying 40 people were killed, including three children, and scores of others were injured.

"I strongly condemn the violence that has taken place in Yemen today and call on President Saleh to adhere to his public pledge to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully," Obama's statement said. "Those responsible for today's violence must be held accountable. The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and assembly, as well as political change that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people."

In Syria, security forces killed three protesters in the southern city of Deraa, according to the Reuters news agency, which also reported smaller protests in the central city of Homs and the coastal town of Banias. In the old quarter of the Syrian capital, Damascus, crowds briefly chanted opposition slogans inside a historic mosque before being surrounded by security forces.

Amateur videos posted online Friday showed security forces breaking up attempted protests in several Syrian cities. Syria's authoritarian regime has zero tolerance for demonstrations and has jailed prominent dissidents in recent days to block the opposition from starting a revolt.

In a symbolic move that infuriated protesters, Bahrain destroyed the landmark pearl monument in the Manama traffic circle, where demonstrations have erupted for a month.

News reports said soldiers arrived early Friday to demolish the 300-foot monument, which was topped with a massive pearl as a nod to the island-state's pearl-diving heritage. Photos posted online after the destruction showed a pile of debris in place of the monument.

In Sitra, an island south of Manama, thousands of mourners attended the funeral of a Shiite Muslim protester who was killed Tuesday by security forces. At least 12 people have died, and dozens more have been wounded in Bahrain since demonstrations against the ruling al Khalifa family began last month.

The sectarian undertones of Bahrain's crisis threaten to inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions in other Gulf nations. The Bahraini royal family is Sunni in a majority-Shiite country where Shiites have long complained of discrimination.

Saudi Arabia, another Sunni kingdom also wrestling with a seething Shiite population, sent 1,000 troops into Bahrain this week to back up the government. That escalation led thousands of Shiites to demonstrate in solidarity with the Bahraini protesters Friday. Large-scale gatherings were reported in Shiite areas of Iraq and in Iran, where a senior cleric urged the Bahrainis to keep fighting "until death or victory."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's 86-year-old King Abdullah made a rare televised appearance to offer $93 billion in benefits such as salary bonuses and better health care in hopes of quieting the kingdom's own rumbles of rebellion.

Security forces broke up small groups of Shiite protesters Friday, injuring at least 10 people, according to news reports.

Also Friday, thousands crowded into downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square for a rally ahead of Saturday's referendum on constitutional amendments, the first vote since Hosni Mubarak's regime was toppled and a military-led caretaker government took power.

Opposition activists are divided on the amendments, with some urging "yes" votes to speed the handover of power to a civilian authority, while others are encouraging "no" votes because they feel the old constitution is so flawed that the only solution is to scrap it and draft a new charter.

(Sabry is a special correspondent for McClatchy. Margaret Talev contributed to this article from Washington.)

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