SANA'A // Three protesters were killed yesterday, including a teenage boy, and hundreds of others were injured after Yemeni security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to suppress protests demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Security forces backed by troops from the Republican Guard launched a predawn raid on Change Square in Sana'a, where thousands have camped out for the past four weeks.
Witnesses said troops surrounded the square shortly after midnight yesterday and ordered protesters to go home. Just before dawn, the security forces opened fire on the crowd. The demonstrators reacted by hurling rocks at the soldiers and used pickaxes to rip out chunks of concrete from the road to throw at the troops.
One protester died from a bullet to the head, which may have come from a sniper on the rooftop of a nearby building, witnesses told the Associated Press.
Abdelwahed al Juneid, a volunteer doctor working with the protesters, said about 250 people were wounded.
A few hours later, another protester was shot dead in a nearby street. Witnesses said he was also shot by a sniper, but that could not be independently confirmed. On its website, the defence ministry denied that any army forces were involved in the attack.
In the port city of Mukalla, in the south-eastern province of Hadramout, a 15-year-old was shot dead when troops opened fire on protesters. Twelve people were wounded in similar violence in Yemen's southern province of Taiz.
In the capital, medical personnel described a confusing scene as the injured were brought in to a makeshift clinic.
Hundreds of men were carried on stretchers towards a mosque that has been transformed into a medical clinic. Some of the wounded were treated at the side of the road, many with head injuries from bullets and falling rocks.
"After surrounding the site from different directions, security and army forces from the Republican Guard raided our protest in the early morning, using live ammunition, water cannons and lethal gas which makes you faint after inhaling it," said Abdulrehman al Qubati, an activist.
Medics at Change Square complained that ambulances were not allowed to enter the site.
"Fifty people have been injured by live bullets. Hundreds are suffocating and dozens of the cases are serious," said Mohammed al Obahi, the head of the volunteer medical team at the square.
Medics have also complained about the gas that has been used against the protesters. "The people affected by the gas are suffering from headaches, hallucinations and are trembling," Mr al Obahi said.
Abdulkareem Rasee, the health minister, denied in a statement on the health ministry's website that lethal or poison gas had been used to disperse crowds. He said security forces used smoke and tear gas.
Gerald Feierstein, the US ambassador to Yemen, also denied that mustard or nerve gas had been used.
"Allegations that mustard or sirens have been used are not correct," Mr Feierstein told reporters yesterday. "Nobody has presented any evidence or anybody who has demonstrated any of the symptoms of exposure to mustard gas. Based on our best guess, we believe that probably what was used was tear gas and smoke. But, I have to emphasise this is only a guess. But we are relatively confident that what was used the other day was not a poison gas of any sort."
In Taiz, thousands took to the streets demanding the ouster of Mr Saleh, who has been in power for nearly 32 years. Fourteen schoolchildren were wounded when police used live bullets and stones to break up the demonstration, according to Bushra al Maktari, a protest leader. Ms al Maktari said schools suspended classes and that protesters were planning a march on the governor's office.
In the port city of Aden, two people were wounded when police dispersed a protest with live ammunition.
Yesterday's violence comes a day after a record number of people protested across the country on Friday. Mr Saleh has said he would step down at the end of the year and announced on Thursday that he planned to draft a new constitution with a parliamentary system. The proposal was immediately rejected by the opposition and the protesters.
Mr Feierstein called on the government and opposition to sit down and agree on how a peaceful transition of power can be achieved.
"The fact that the tensions are rising and that the potential for violence between the two sides is rising only reinforces the point we have been making over and over again, and that is the only way to reach an agreement is through negotiations and dialogue," he said.
He said that the global rising of food prices and oil would have its "negative impact on the Yemeni economy and people in the near future" and that the unrest could allow extremism to develop in the country.
"We believe that the uncertainty and instability is helpful to al Qa'eda and some of the extremist groups. We have security concerns certainly, but we also have serious concerns about the directions of the Yemeni economy," said Mr Feierstein.