SANA'A // President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared emergency law yesterday after at least 46 people were killed in the biggest - and deadliest - day of anti-government protests yet in the Yemeni capital.
More than 200 other demonstrators were wounded as security forces and armed government supporters sprayed live rounds into a crowd of tens of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered at Change Square in Sana'a. Mr Saleh expressed "regret" over the bloodshed, describing the victims as "martyrs of democracy".
Mr Saleh's tourism minister, Nabil Hasan al Faqih, resigned from his post and quit the ruling party after the attack, becoming the first cabinet member to defect since the protests started.
Witnesses said armed pro-government snipers positioned on rooftops began firing on protesters as they attempted to push through government barricades. Police and security personnel also fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse the surging crowd.
Enraged protesters stormed several buildings that were the source of the gunfire. Witnesses said they saw protesters throw six alleged gunmen from the rooftops.
Demonstrators have camped out in public squares across Yemen for over a month to demand that Mr Saleh end his 33-year rule. Security forces and pro-government thugs have used live fire, rubber bullets, tear gas, sticks, knives and rocks to suppress them. The protesters say they won't go until Mr Saleh does.
"They want to scare and terrorise us. They want to drag us into a cycle of violence - to make the revolution meaningless," Jamal Anaam, a 40-year-old activist camping out in the square, told the Associated Press.
"They want to repeat the Libyan experiment, but we refuse to be dragged into violence no matter what the price," Mr Anaam said.
Before yesterday's shooting in Sana'a, a military helicopter flew low over the square as protesters arrived from prayers. Gunfire soon erupted from rooftops and houses above the demonstrators, where witnesses said beige-clad elite forces and plainclothes security officials took aim.
Clashes also erupted along Al Wahda Street where protesters had erected a protest camp on the campus of Sana'a University.
Doctors at makeshift clinics near the protest sites said at least 40 people were killed, including a 14-year-old boy who was shot in the head.
Dr Tawfik al Aghbari, a physician at one of the clinics, said stone-throwing protesters were met with a deadly barrage of bullets.
"This is a terrible massacre and blood is everywhere. The shots targeted the head, neck and heart, which means the attackers meant to kill the protesters. Thirty cases [here] are in a critical condition," Dr al Aghbari said.
"We appeal to the Red Cross and all humanitarian agencies to help us as our clinic is not able to address the needs of the injured. Dozens have been taken to private hospitals after al-Kuwait public hospital shut down its doors and refused to receive the cases."
At nearby al Jameea mosque, which was turned into an ad hoc clinic serving dozens of wounded, witnesses described bodies piling up too fast to receive proper medical attention.
As yesterday's chaos ensued, Mr Saleh declared a nationwide state of emergency that, among other restrictions, bans public protests and allows the security forces to conduct arrests without warrants. It also allows the establishment of emergency courts.
Mr Saleh said in a press conference yesterday that the Supreme National Defence Council would hold a meeting and define the steps to be taken after the declaration of the state of emergency, which was imposed for 30 days.
Mutahar al Masri, the interior minister, said at the same press conference that 25 were killed and 102 others were injured.
The Yemeni opposition strongly condemned the attack, calling it an unjustifiable bloodbath.
"This is a massacre and heinous crime that will speed up the departure of Saleh and his relatives. This corrupt and oppressive regime has planned well for this attack [that was] meant to trap us into violence. However, we will not be trapped to violence and people will continue their peaceful protests until the fall of the regime," Mohammed al Sabri, an opposition spokesman, said.
"There will be no dialogue and Ali Saleh and his relatives should leave immediately. They are criminals and will be sued before local and international courts for their crimes against the people," Mr al Sabri said.
The opposition issued a statement late last night encouraging people to defy the emergency laws.
"The massacre committed against the protesters has made Saleh lose what has been left of legitimacy to him and he is no longer eligible to issue decisions that have to do with the public affairs in the country … the people have ousted him and he has to immediately respond to them and leave," the statement read.
In Washington, the US president, Barack Obama, condemned the violence against demonstrators and called on Mr Saleh to live up to a pledge to allow peaceful protests.
"Those responsible for today's violence must be held accountable," Mr Obama said. "It is more important than ever for all sides to participate in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people, and provides a peaceful, orderly and democratic path to a stronger and more prosperous nation."
Following the attack, thousands of Yemenis took to the streets and protests sites in several cities across the country.
Mr Saleh said last month he would not seek re-election after his term ended in 2013, and would not attempt to transfer power to his son. on March 10, he announced plans to draft a new constitution and introduce a parliamentary system. The proposal was immediately rejected by the opposition and the protesters after Mr Saleh refused opposition demands that he step down this year.
Violence has marked weeks of street protests demanding Saleh's ouster and yesterday's attack raises the death toll to 88 with more than 1,200 injured since the protests started in early February, according to human rights groups.
With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse