Snipers, shelling raise death toll in Yemen capital

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 21, 2011 9:40 AM
Snipers, shelling raise death toll in Yemen capital

By Erika Solomon

SANAA (Reuters) - Snipers and shelling killed at least five people in the Yemeni capital on Wednesday, violating a ceasefire agreed a day earlier to prevent a spiral into civil war over President Ali Abdullah Saleh's refusal to quit power after months of popular protests.

Four people were killed by snipers in two separate incidents near "Change Square" where protesters have camped for eight months demanding an end to Saleh's 33-year rule. A fifth died when a mortar shell struck the camp itself.

The killings raised the death toll to 75 in four days of bloodshed that shattered a prolonged, uneasy stalemate that set in place during fitful mediation efforts to defuse the crisis.

"I was sitting in my tent when all of a sudden there was a blast through the tent and I looked down and my leg was bleeding," said Tareq, 18, who was injured in the shelling. He said he had counted four or five shells.

The two sides had effectively divided Sanaa between themselves since the unrest began but protesters losing patience after months of political deadlock tipped the uneasy balance of power on Sunday by marching into territory controlled by pro-Saleh troops. They were met with heavy gunfire.

Twenty-six protesters were killed, the worst bout of bloodshed since March, and it touched off heavy fighting between government troops and forces loyal to a top general who defected from Saleh earlier and threw his weight behind the protesters.

Tens of thousands laid out prayer mats on a main road in Sanaa on Wednesday to mourn the dead, whose bodies were carried through the crowd wrapped in flags and strewn with leaves, while explosions thudded in the distance.

"Shame on you if you don't avenge the blood of the martyrs ... The blood of our brothers will not be spilled in vain!" one speaker at the funeral said over a megaphone.

A military showdown in Sanaa that could further destabilize the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country has long been the worst nightmare of diplomats trying to push through a deal hatched by Yemen's Gulf neighbors to start a power transition.

Diplomats working with Yemen's fractious politicians are scrambling to find a way to salvage the long-stalled plan -- which Saleh has accepted only to back out of on three occasions -- in the hope it could reinstate calm in the capital.

Some worried that the fighting has soured negotiations which, days before the explosion of violence on Sunday, they anticipated would yield a deal within a week.

Human Rights Watch warned on Wednesday that the excessive use of force to suppress protesters signaled the danger in the Gulf transition plan of a planned immunity clause drafted on the behalf of Saleh and his family-dominated coterie.

"These latest killings by Yemeni security forces show exactly why there should be no get-out-of-jail-free card for those responsible," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)