Yemeni troops open fire on demonstrators, killing dozens

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 18, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — At least 24 demonstrators were killed in Sanaa on Sunday, as gunmen opened fire on demonstrators calling for the ouster of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The attacks, which came amidst a tense, protracted stalemate in the nation's ongoing political crisis, made Sunday Sanaa's bloodiest day in months.

Demonstrators have maintained large-scale street protests across the country since February, when mobs of youth demonstrators, inspired by the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, took to the streets to call for political change.

Saleh's support base has been rocked by defections of many of his former military, tribal and political allies, yet he has refused to step down from power, backing away from an internationally backed power-transfer agreement at least three times. Saleh has been out of the country since traveling to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after suffering injuries in a bomb attack on his compound in early June.

The U.S. State Department and European governments hailed Saleh's recent move to transfer authority to conduct negotiations with the opposition to his vice president as a promising step toward resolution of the nation's political crisis. Yet many Yemenis remain deeply skeptical of his intentions.

The president's opponents responded to his move by calling for an escalation in protests, and increasing numbers of demonstrators have been met by a strong military presence, increasing tensions in a city already on edge from months of uncertainty.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators had massed Friday when, according to witnesses, government troops and plainclothes gunmen fired at them as they marched toward government buildings. Following the initial fire, a sustained confrontation ensued.

Witnesses said that government forces attacked demonstrators with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weaponry, noting that some protesters responded by launching rocks and Molotov cocktails at government forces. Hours later, gunfire continued to echo through the streets.

In a statement released after the attacks, Saleh's General People's Congress Party expressed condolences for the victims, while blaming the opposition and defected military figures for the bloodshed.

Yet in the eyes of many Yemenis, responsibility for the attack rests squarely on the president and his allies.

In Sanaa's field hospital, a converted mosque adjacent to the city's protest square where many of the wounded were being treated, a sense of controlled chaos prevailed. Nurses and doctors rushed to provide treatment, struggling to deal with the masses of injured, while others wept over the bloodied, disfigured bodies of slain friends and relatives.

Underneath feelings of grief and shock, however, a strong, directed anger prevailed.

"In my 30-year career, I have never seen anything like this," said Dr. Tariq Nooman, a surgeon providing treatment at the field hospital. "But we cannot lay blame solely on the regime _as Saleh sits in a palace in Riyadh, the Saudis are literally allowing him to slaughter the Yemeni people."

Despite the violence, demonstrators continue to mass in Change Square, where many have been camped out since March. Amidst the echo of the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, protesters gathered to pray in the square and its surrounding streets, as they have done every night for more than six months. Despite the horror of the violence, they said, they would not cease their efforts to achieve political change.

"In a way, it is as if the events just keep repeating themselves," said Mohamed Sharabi, a leading youth protester, noting that this attack came six months to the day after a similarly bloody attack in March. "Still, we will continue to fight for a new Yemen."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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