UN cites outsize government force in Yemeni deaths

AP News
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Posted: Sep 13, 2011 11:19 AM
UN cites outsize government force in Yemeni deaths

Hundreds have died and thousands more have been injured in violence in Yemen, a team of U.N. officials said Tuesday, pointing to allegations against government security forces of killing civilians, random detention and torture.

Officials from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded in an on-the-ground assessment that many Yemenis peacefully demonstrated for greater freedom but were "met with excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force by the state."

The report calls for an independent investigation into human rights abuses.

The Tunisian revolution in January inspired mass protests against longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, demanding that he step aside.

Militants, some with links to the country's al-Qaeda branch, have taken advantage of the tension to wrest control of parts of the country, sparking battles with government forces backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Hanny Megally, a senior U.N. official who oversaw the assessment, said tanks could be heard firing at night and small arms by day, and protesters were occasionally caught up in crossfire between militants and government security forces.

"Clearly, the country was teetering on civil war," he said. "What we were witnessing was a stalemate."

The report says that both the government and the militants "have sought to present themselves as protectors of the civilian population and to blame the other for the suffering and harship that has been brought upon them."

Major outages of electricity and a lack of fuel and water contributed to the instability, Megally said, including the deaths of hospital patients who could no longer be adequately treated or whose life support machines had to be turned off.

"Patients were carried out the back door as security forces came in the front door," he said.

Megally said major diseases that had receded somewhat because of international efforts appeared to be coming back, hospitals were ransacked, and security forces had fired on ambulances and women.

He said some residents reported the torture and rape of children, providing U.N. officials with hundreds of compact discs, thumb drives and other documentation of their suffering.

The report based on U.N. officials' visit to Yemen from June 28 to July 6 concludes that "hundreds have been killed and thousands have suffered injuries, including loss of limbs."

The U.N.'s top human rights body plans to take up the issue of Yemen in Geneva next week.

It says 53 people were killed during a peaceful demonstration on March 18 in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and "dozens of demonstrators" were killed on May 29 in Taizz, south of the capital.

Saleh, recuperating in Saudi Arabia from a June 3 attack on his compound in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, is under fire from the U.S. and regional powers calling for his resignation, despite the government's battle against Islamist militants.

The U.S. also has given Saleh's government millions in aid to battle militants from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The United States views al-Qaida's branch in Yemen as one of the most dangerous, holding its members responsible for a failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit in December 2009.

Saleh has warned the West that if he heeds protesters' calls to step down, al-Qaida would take control of the country.

The nation's defense ministry has said at least 230 soldiers and 300 fighters were killed this year in southern Yemen. An unknown number of civilians were killed in government-sanctioned airstrikes.