Death toll tops 50 as clashes continue in Yemen

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 19, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — The Yemeni capital was rocked by violence Monday for a second straight day as government forces clashed with demonstrators and defected soldiers, leaving at least 25 people dead.

That raised the death toll to more than 50 in one of the worst spates of violence since demonstrations against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule began nearly eight months ago.

Monday's clashes began as demonstrators attempted to extend their protest camp into government-controlled territory. Witnesses said that demonstrators were then targeted by repeated sniper fire, which also struck numerous bystanders.

The sniper fire sparked a series of clashes between pro-government forces, including plainclothes gunmen, and troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen, a former Saleh ally who defected to the side of demonstrators in March.

The area surrounding the centrally located neighborhood where clashes began remained a virtual war zone, reportedly leaving numerous civilians trapped in the middle of the fighting. The sounds of shooting and rocket fire echoed through the capital, while Sanaa's international airport was temporarily shuttered for the first time since demonstrations began, although it later reopened.

The dead ranged from a 10-month-old infant, reportedly killed by a stray bullet, to defected soldiers and demonstrating youths. Some bodies were missing limbs, ripped apart by heavy weaponry.

Events in Sanaa rippled across the country as demonstrators rallied in support. Four people were reported killed in Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city, when government forces opened fire on a demonstration.

This latest outburst of violence has raised fears that the crisis in Yemen could rapidly spiral out of control. The nation has been adrift amid a protracted political stalemate, as Saleh and his loyalists continue to cling to power despite months of street protests and increasing international pressure.

Saleh, who traveled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after being seriously injured in an assassination attempt more than three months ago and has remained there ever since, has repeatedly backed away from signing an internationally-backed power transfer agreement negotiated by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. Political talks have stalled, heightening fears of a power vacuum in the Arabian Peninsula nation, which is home to a powerful al Qaida faction.

The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in a statement Monday condemned the violence and repeated support for a peaceful political transition. U.S. and other Western officials had hailed Saleh's decision last week to delegate negotiating authority to his vice president, and the statement expressed hope that an agreement could be signed soon.

"The United States continues to support a peaceful and orderly transition in Yemen, one which addresses the Yemeni people's aspirations for peace and security," the statement said. "We remain hopeful that an agreement will be reached that leads to the signing of the (Gulf Cooperation Council) initiative within one week."

Yemeni media reported that numerous diplomats, including United Nations envoy Jamal Benomar, met Monday with representatives of the ruling party. Some close observers echoed U.S. optimism, saying that Vice President Abdulrabbo Mansour al-Hadi's entrance into the negotiations offered an opening to reach a deal.

"The problem before was Saleh," said Abdulgani al-Iryani, a veteran political analyst. "But now that Saleh has delegated power to al-Hadi, for the first time we are looking at two sides who actually want to reach an agreement."

In the streets near the center of fighting, however, few were optimistic. Many repeated fears that the nation was on the brink of even greater violence and expressed anger at the international community, which they say has ignored the Yemeni people.

"We are being killed by the dozens and they just talk of dialogue and political crisis," said Faris al-Shamlani, speaking amid echoes of shelling and bullet fire. "Where is the United Nations? Where is America? Where is the Arab League?"

Many in Sanaa were struggling to comprehend the events of the past 48 hours. Aiding the wounded and grieving in the capital's field hospital, where many of the victims of Monday's attacks were being treated, Nadia Abdullah, an engineering student active in anti-government protests, was reeling from shock — but her hope for political change wasn't extinguished.

"It's all very difficult," she said, fighting back tears. "But revolution is always difficult."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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