Killings galvanise Yemeni opposition
SANA'A // Thousands of Yemenis poured into the capital's al Tagheer Square yesterday to show solidarity to victims of a government assault a day earlier that left at least 50 protesters dead and more than 600 wounded.
The violence in Sana'a on Friday prompted President Ali Abdullah Saleh to declare a state of emergency after weeks of unrest that have rocked the ruling government despite a raft of reforms and concessions meant to appease the protest movement.
The alleged brutality of the crackdown appears to have galvanised the disparate elements of the protest movement, leading to government defections, calls for an inquiry and deepening involvement of Yemen's powerful tribal leaders.
Abdulmalik al Usufi, a doctor at the protest site, said that 270 protesters had been wounded by rooftop sniper attacks, live rounds fired by police and even stones thrown by pro-government gangs. Dr Usufi added that 372 demonstrators had been affected by tear gas inhalation. Among those killed was photojournalist Jamal al-Sharabi, a according to the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate.
At least seven anti-government protesters were also injured yesterday in the port of Aden when police stormed a protest camp in the city's Mualla district, firing live bullets and tear gas. Local sources said at least three protesters suffered gunshot wounds.
Despite the emergency decree, which limits public gatherings, about 15,000 teachers joined the protest yesterday in Sana'a after the Joint Meeting Parties, a six-party opposition, called on Yemenis to take to the streets.
The protesters chanted, "Overthrow the regime", and "It's a shame: firing bullets at peaceful protests."
In recent weeks, military troops and police have been deployed on the streets of Sana'a. After Friday's street battles, tanks were positioned at al-Sabeen Square and around the presidential palace for the first time since protests swept the country in mid-February, demanding an end to Mr Saleh's 33-year grip on power.
Armoured personnel carriers took up positions yesterday at key intersections and buildings, including the state TV complex and other government institutions. The army also set up barricades and checkpoints around the main protest camp at Sana'a University.
Mr Saleh's 30-day nationwide state of emergency decree gave security forces a freer hand to confront demonstrators and barred citizens from carrying weapons.
Even so, the government measure seems to have done little to dissuade the protesters.
"They are fools if they think they can defeat us with their forces and tanks. The more violent they are, the more determined we become. We have not come to this site for fun; we know that the price for change will be costly and we are ready for that," Abdulrehman al Kubati, a 30-year-old activist, said.
Witnesses said snipers opened fire on the tens of thousands of protesters who rushed to the protest square after Friday prayers. Medics said a large portion of those killed and injured were the victims of head shots delivered from above, according to media reports.
Yemen's general prosecutor's office has launched an investigation into the shooting of protesters, the state Saba news agency said yesterday. Protest leaders claim to have captured at least seven snipers carrying government identity cards, but Mr Saleh and other government officials have denied this, blaming gunmen among the protesters for the violence.
The already poor public opinion of Mr Saleh's government has sunk even lower after a string of resignations by government officials - led by ex-tourism minister Nabil Hasan al Faqih, who quit his post on Friday - in protest of the escalating violence against protesters.
Nasr Taha Mustafa, chairman of the government mouthpiece Saba news agency, and Faisal Abu Ras, Yemen's ambassador to Lebanon, both resigned yesterday. Also stepping down were Mohammed Zabarh, deputy education minister and a senior member of the ruling party, and Faris al Saqqaf, chairman of the general book authority.
"I find myself compelled to submit my resignation after the heinous massacre in Sana'a yesterday... Nothing can justify the deaths of scores of youths whose only sin was to exercise the freedom guaranteed by Islam and the constitution to demand change," Mustafa wrote in his resignation letter to President Saleh, which was published by local media.
Powerful tribal leaders are also rally followers against the embattled government. Sadek al Ahmar, chief of the Hashid, the most influential tribe in Yemen, described Friday's shootings as a "black shameful act".
"If we have tribal and manly attributes, we have to take a stand against those who have killed our brothers and sons who were peaceful protesters without even a pistol," Mr al Ahmar, told a meeting of tribal chiefs.
Huda Alban, minister of human rights, strongly condemned the attack and called in a statement yesterday for an "immediate investigation and identifying the perpetrators of this flagrant act".
Mohammed al Sabri, an opposition leader, said the departure of senior officials was the beginning of the end for the government.
"The [resignations] demonstrate the regime has started losing its own cronies and this is a sign of collapse," Mr Sabri said.
"And talking about dialogue after such a massacre is out of question. What is happening now is a revolution by the people - and we are with them."
Updated: March 20, 2011 04:00 AM