Yemeni Security Forces Open Fire On Protesters
Security forces and plainclothes gunmen opened fire on crowds of Yemenis marching through a southern city Monday, killing as many as a dozen people and wounding dozens, in an intensifying crackdown against the uprising against the 32-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Witnesses described troops and gunmen, some on nearby rooftops, firing wildly on thousands of protesters who marched past the governor's headquarters in Taiz in the second straight day of violence in the southern city. Some — including elderly people — were trampled and injured as the crowds tried to flee, witnesses said.
The bloodshed in Taiz further stoked the nearly 2-month-old uprising against Saleh. The opposition has been holding continual protest camps in main squares of the capital, Sanaa, and other cities around the country, and on Monday new demonstrations in solidarity with the Taiz protesters erupted in several places — including the Red Sea port city of Hodeida, where security forces also opened fire on marchers.
The violence in the mountain city of Taiz began when thousands of protesters marched down its main street toward Freedom Square, where demonstrators have been camped out, surrounded by security forces.
As the march passed the governor's headquarters, troops stationed there blocked the procession and clashes broke out. Some protesters threw stones, witnesses said.
Troops on nearby rooftops opened fire on the crowd with live ammunition, and the marchers then turned to besiege the governor's headquarters, said Bushra al-Maqtara, an opposition activist in Taiz, and other witnesses.
"It was heavy gunfire from all directions. Some were firing from the rooftop of the governor's building," one man in the crowd, Omar al-Saqqaf, told The Associated Press. He said he saw military police load the bodies of two slain protesters into a car and then speed away.
At least 12 protesters were killed and more than 30 wounded, some with gunshots to the head and chest, said Zakariya Abdul-Qader, a doctor at a clinic set up by protesters in Freedom Square. Other doctors at the clinic confirmed the figure.
The military has clamped down on the city of nearly half a million, about 120 miles south of Sanaa. For a second day, tanks and armored vehicles blocked entrances to the city to prevent outsiders from joining the protests. They also surrounded Freedom Square, bottling up the thousands in the protest camp there and arresting anyone who tries to exit.
Saleh's top security official in Taiz, Abdullah Qiran, is accused by demonstrators of orchestrating some of the most brutal crackdowns against demonstrators. On Sunday, police attacked a march by thousands of women in Taiz, sparking a battle with a separate group of male protesters.
In an interview with NPR from Sanaa, Washington Post correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan said the fact that women have joined the demonstrations is part of an "incredible psychological transformation" in the country.
"In Yemen, women are basically second-class citizens, and they're denied many of the rights that men have," Raghavan said. "And yet what we're seeing in places like Taiz and in the capital, Sanaa, is quite a number of women who have come out to protest against a government."
Violence has grown amid frustration over the failure of behind-the-scenes efforts to find a formula to remove Saleh while maintaining a stable transition in this fragmented nation, where poverty and tribal divisions are widespread. Saleh's crackdown has been so harsh — killing at lest 97 since protests began Feb. 11 — it propelled many of his key allies to the opposition, but still he has refused to step down immediately.
Raghavan said the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has been privately urging Saleh to transfer power for weeks — but the question now is under what conditions.
"President Saleh, from the very beginning, had indicated that he would step down from power, but he's always been determined to basically determine the terms of his exit. What he wants is to step down in the next elections, in which he could oversee a democratic transition of power."
The president's spokesman, Ahmed al-Sufi, said Sunday that the president is only "ready to discuss the peaceful handover of power according to the constitution." But the opposition has pressed for his immediate departure.
The 65-year-old leader is a key ally for the United States, which has provided his government with millions in counterterrorism aid to fight the al-Qaida branch that has taken root in Yemen and has plotted attacks on American soil.
The reliance on Saleh has left Washington struggling with how to deal with the uprising. U.S. officials have stopped short of publicly calling on the president to step down immediately.
Over the weekend, Yemen's opposition parties put out their most detailed outline yet for a handover of power. They proposed that Saleh step down to be replaced by his vice president, who would oversee a dialogue on reforming the constitution and planning elections. But the broad opposition is not unified on the idea, with some activists organizing the protests opposed to the vice president stepping in.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this story. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.