Yemen government supporters armed with sticks, knives and guns attacked thousands of protesters Wednesday, wounding hundreds in an increasingly violent crackdown on demonstrations calling for the country's longtime president to step down, witnesses said.
After nearly a month of protests, about 50 demonstrators have been killed by security forces or paid thugs, said Amal al-Bashi, of the Yemen Center for Human Rights.
Police fired tear gas to break up Wednesday's melee in the southern al-Hudaydah port, where some 4,000 people have been camped out for weeks. Ten protesters were shot and dozens were stabbed and pounded with rocks, a medical official told The Associated Press. Others were injured as they were trampled by fleeing demonstrators. Hundreds suffered breathing problems because of the tear gas.
Yemen has been rocked by a month of daily street demonstrations set in motion by the tumult sweeping the Arab world. Fed up with corruption, poverty and a lack of political freedom, the protesters have demanded that President Ali Abdullah Saleh leave office after 32 years in power. Thousands are sleeping in public squares in cities and towns scattered throughout Yemen, refusing to leave until Saleh resigns.
Even before the protests started in mid-February, Yemen's government was struggling to confront one of the world's most active al-Qaida branches, a secessionist rebellion in the south and a Shiite uprising in the north. Saleh is a key ally in the U.S. campaign against the al-Qaida terror network.
The Yemeni government's crackdown on demonstrators have typically involved police firing on protesters and plainclothes government supporters attacking crowds with clubs and knives.
But the violence has been worse in recent days.
On Tuesday, pro-government forces violently dispersed another protest in al-Hudaydah. One man who was wounded Tuesday died of his injuries, said the medical official in al-Hudaydah, asking that his name not be published for fear of reprisals.
The protests are unprecedented in their scope and in the broad cross-section of society taking part.
In the southern province of Taiz, police fired tear gas Wednesday to disperse a student demonstration, wounding eight female university students. It is a startling change for Yemen, where women are expected to stay out of sight, and certainly not participate in public events. In the capital, Sanaa, elite government troops set up checkpoints around the Presidential palace and other sensitive areas, searching cars.
Opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri said there would be "no chance of dialogue" with the president's regime in light of the violent crackdown. He said a European Union diplomat had been trying to mediate between the two sides, but hope was fading.
Yemeni opposition groups put out a joint statement saying the deaths would only increase people's determination.