SANAA// More than 40 people were killed and hundreds injured yesterday as forces loyal to the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, moved to clear the protest camp at the centre of the seven-month uprising.
Government troops and snipers launched attacks on Change Square in Sanaa, where thousands protesting at Mr Saleh's regime have camped out since February.
"Some of the tents and nearby buildings caught fire as shells hit here and there as snipers on rooftops continued firing on the camp for hours," said Mohammed Al Sharabi, a protest activist. He described the scene as chaotic as protesters ran in all directions searching for cover.
"Is this is the olive branch and peace dove that Saleh said he carried to his people after returning from Saudi Arabia?" asked Mr Al Sharabi.
Mr Saleh made a surprise return to Yemen on Friday, nearly four months after he was injured in an attack on his presidential compound in Sanaa and left for treatment in Riyadh.
Medical officials at the field hospital set up at the protest square said 30 people, including 18 protesters, were killed yesterday.
They said more than 50 people were also wounded in the attack. The deaths raise to at least 140 the number of people killed in last week's violence.
Yemen's government did not comment on the attacks, but insisted Mr Saleh was serious about his call for peace and dialogue.
"The president wants clashes to end and that gunmen are evacuated from major cities," said Abdu Ganadi, the spokesperson for the Yemeni government.
In the city's north-west, mortars and rockets also rained down on the headquarters of the 1st Armoured Division, led by Mr Saleh's former ally, Maj Gen Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, who months ago sided with the opposition. His followers have since been protecting the protesters' daily sit-ins and marches on Change Square.
Eleven of Gen Al Ahmar's troops were killed in the shelling and 112 were wounded, according to Abdel Ghani Al Ahimiri, a spokesman for the rebel soldiers.
Maj Gen Ahmar's troops have been engaged in street battles with government forces for more than a week, after 26 people were killed and hundreds injured in an attack on a peaceful protest march on September 18.
Gen Ahmar issued a statement yesterday calling Mr Saleh a "sick, vengeful soul" and comparing him to the Roman emperor Nero, burning down his own city.
An interior ministry official said the government attacked the headquarters yesterday in retaliation, as the rebel soldiers were trying to take over the foreign ministry.
"Their forces surrounded the foreign ministry and that was unacceptable to the government. It is the duty of the government to ensure law and order and that is why the 1st Division was attacked," said a senior ministry official.
Yemen's interior minister, Gen Mouthar Al Masri, said yesterday eight government troops were killed and dozens of others wounded. It was not clear if he was referring to violence in Sanaa or elsewhere.
Explosions also rocked the northern Hasaba neighbourhood, where street battles were being waged between regime forces backed by tribesmen and supporters of Sadeq Al Ahmar, leader of Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation, which joined the uprising in March.
Despite the increasing violence, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in streets near their camp yesterday, demanding the prosecution of the president and his relatives.
"This is a revolution and we will march until our demands are met. We will be shot at, but our blood will help build a prosperous nation and remove an oppressive regime," said Mahmood Al Areeqi, a youth activist who took part in the march.
Many had hoped Mr Saleh's return might help to defuse the conflict. However, the attacks on the protest camp reinforced concern that the president's presence has escalated the fighting.
"The state media said the president has come to thwart sedition but it was clear that he came back to crush his rivals. We could not sleep because of the blasts and gunfire," said Muhssen Al Yafee, a resident.
"Random shells hit a house near by, while another one killed a boy in our neighbourhood. Where shall we go?"
A large part of Sanaa has turned into a battlefield with power and water supplies intermittent in some areas and completely cut off in others. Hael, a commercial street in the city, was empty and smoke was rising from some of the buildings yesterday.
Gulf Cooperation Council condemned the attacks against protesters yesterday and called for the formation of an investigative committee.
Their statement followed a report on Yemen by the GCC secretary general Abdullatif Al Zayani to foreign ministers and international diplomats in New York. Mr Zayani's latest mediation mission foundered amid fighting in Sanaa, and he flew out last Wednesday empty-handed.
* with additional reporting from the Associated Press and Agence-France Presse