Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Violence Engulfs Yemen's Peaceful Protests

Mortars Fall on Yemeni Capital as Battles Continue

By Laura Kasinof
The New York Times
September 20, 2011

SANA, Yemen — Street battles raged for a third day on Tuesday in Sana, Yemen’s capital. A dozen protesters were killed as the conflict between government security forces and soldiers loyal to an army commander who has defected threatened to derail hopes for a resolution of the nation’s months-long political stalemate.

Doctors at a field hospital at the site of an antigovernment sit-in said the protesters had been killed by live ammunition, mortar fire and heavy artillery.

That brought the death toll since fighting broke out in Sana on Sunday to nearly 60, making the past three days the most violent in the city since the beginning of the uprising against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in January.

Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi announced a ceasefire on Tuesday evening, said a government spokesman, Mohammed Albasha. But loud explosions echoed across Sana on Tuesday night, after the announcement, indicating that the accord was not holding.

The violence erupted on Sunday after antigovernment protesters marched outside the protected area of their sit-in. In response, security forces and armed government supporters fired at the thousands of demonstrators, using heavy caliber machine guns.

That, in turn, ignited fighting between government forces and troops loyal to Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, who defected and whose forces have been protecting the protesters for months. The forces loyal to the government are controlled by the president’s relatives.

It was an outcome many had feared since General Ahmar announced his support for the protest movement in March. The two sides had been at a standoff ever since, with each controlling portions of Sana.

Before the outbreak of fighting on Sunday, members of Yemen’s governing party and the political opposition had seemed to be moving closer to an agreement on a transfer of power. A United Nations envoy, Jamal Benomar, and the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional bloc, arrived in Sana on Monday to oversee such an agreement. There had been anticipation that a political compromise would lead to a presidential election and the creation of a coalition government.

By Tuesday night, however, a senior member of the governing party said the negotiations had “stagnated as a result of the conflict.”

Yassin Saeed Noman, who is the leader of an opposition bloc known as the Joint Meetings Parties, appeared to reject the idea of negotiations altogether unless Mr. Saleh or his deputy, Mr. Hadi, first signed an initiative to transfer power. Mr. Saleh is in Saudi Arabia recuperating from injuries he sustained in a bombing at the presidential compound more than three months ago.

“They have to say that we accept the initiative,” Mr. Noman said, referring to the agreement to transfer power. “Then we can talk about the implementing mechanisms.”

“They don’t want to solve the problem peacefully,” he added. “They think they can overcome all others by using weapons. That’s why I think the international community should condemn what is happening.”

The comments represented a shift in position for Mr. Noman, who is seen as a moderate among the political opposition.

Major thoroughfares in Sana were relatively empty on Tuesday, and many stores were closed. Few women were seen on the streets, as the sound of explosions could be heard in the distance. Near an area known as the Kentucky roundabout, government forces fought with soldiers belonging to the First Armored Division, which is led by General Ahmar.

The division had taken over a strategic intersection just south of the protesters’ sit-in on Sunday night, but by Tuesday afternoon the area was clearly in the hands of government forces.

Soldiers sat on armored personnel carriers, while troops from the republican guards sat along the street with bazookas at their sides. Armed men in civilian clothes controlled intersections. Large pieces of buildings were missing, dislodged by artillery attacks.

Several mortar shells fell on the protest area on Tuesday, witnesses said.

In another development, a doctor in the central city of Taiz said a civilian had been killed overnight by shelling.

“They are not targeting any place,” the doctor, Abdul-Rahim al-Samie, said in a telephone interview. “They are not targeting armed people. They are shooting different houses. Different areas. It was really horrible.”

Taiz has been rocked for months by conflict between government forces and protesters. Shelling takes place almost nightly, residents said.

“We are expecting our lives to end any moment,” Dr. Samie said. “Some of the shells dropped very close to my house this morning.”

Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris, and Robert F. Worth from New York.

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