By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - Police killed a boy and wounded hundreds of people in pre-dawn clashes in the Yemeni capital on Saturday and a 12-year-old youth died during anti-government demonstrations in the southern city of Mukalla, witnesses said.
Thousands of protesters have been demanding the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule and at least 30 people have lost their lives in weeks of unrest in this poverty-stricken country, a neighbor of oil giant Saudi Arabia.
In an upswing in the violence, security forces battled protesters in the capital, Sanaa, early on Saturday in an apparent effort to prevent a makeshift camp housing thousands of government opponents from spreading any further.
A doctor said a young boy had been fatally shot in the head. "We think around 300 are wounded," he added.
The Interior Ministry accused protesters of opening fire during the fighting and said 161 police were injured.
Dozens of demonstrators were apparently overcome by volleys of police teargas, with friends using torn pieces of cardboard to fan them and sprinkling water on their faces.
"The gas used by the police is strange. It causes cramps and a collapse of the nervous system," said Bashir al-Kahli, a doctor helping the injured. "Many of those affected come back with complications after receiving first aid."
The Interior Ministry denied using any sort of nerve gas.
In Mukall the 12-year-old boy died when police fired live rounds to disperse the crowds, residents said.
A wave of protests, inspired by popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, has weakened Saleh's grip on Yemen, but he has steadfastly refused calls for his immediate resignation and the police response to the crisis has become increasingly tough.
POLICE OPEN FIRE AT OTHER RALLIES
Opposition to his rule also shows no sign of fading and hundreds of students marched in the southern port city of Aden on Saturday in support of the protesters in the capital, residents said. Police shot in the air and used tear gas to disperse the crowd, wounding two protesters, they said.
In a separate rally in Aden, hundreds of girls from local schools marched, chanting support for demonstrators in Sanaa.
In Taiz, 200 km (125 miles) south of Sanaa, clashes broke out between police and protesters, who set fire to a police car.
Clashes between rock-throwing Saleh loyalists and protesters broke out late on Friday in the capital as demonstrators tried to extend the area of the sit-in to make room for new arrivals.
Witnesses said residents in the area had also started building barricades to prevent the camp near Sanaa university from spreading. Riot police tackled the protesters as they were preparing for early morning prayers on Saturday.
"It's a tragic scene. The wounded are being put in mosques and in surrounding streets because the clinics can't take them all," said one witness, declining to be named.
The violence came the day after record crowds had gathered in Yemeni cities in a "Friday of no return," calling on Saleh to quit and dismissing his offer to draft a new constitution.
In Washington, a top White House aide told Saleh on Friday the United States welcomed his steps to resolve the crisis and urged opposition groups to heed calls for talks.
"All sectors of the Yemeni opposition should respond constructively to President Saleh's call to engage in a serious dialogue to end the current impasse," White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told Saleh in a telephone call, the White House said in a statement.
The United States fears that Saleh's overthrow might lead to a power vacuum that would be exploited by Islamist militants in the Arabian Peninsula state, from which al Qaeda has launched attacks on Western and Saudi targets.
Protesters are frustrated by rampant corruption and soaring unemployment in a country where 40 percent live on $2 a day or less and a third face chronic hunger.
(Writing by Erika Solomon and Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Editing by Matthew Jones)