Snipers on rooftops kill dozens in Yemen

Police block escape with burning tires

(Photos By Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press)
By Ahmed Al-Haj and Zeina Karam
Associated Press / March 19, 2011

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SANA, Yemen — Snipers hidden on rooftops fired methodically on Yemeni protesters chanting peace slogans yesterday as police sealed off a key escape route with a wall of burning tires. The massive antigovernment demonstration ended in chaos and calls for retribution, with at least 47 people dead and scores wounded.

For more than 20 minutes, witnesses said, security forces and government supporters fired directly at protesters near Sana University. Most of the wounds were to the head, neck, and chest, doctors at the scene said, indicative of an intent to kill.

Because the government had blocked access to the capital’s main hospital, protesters had to set up makeshift emergency rooms and morgues at the scene.

“Where are the human rights organizations?’’ said Alawi Hababi, a doctor at the university. “This is a massacre not witnessed in Sana over the past three decades.’’

Many of the victims, including children, were left sprawled on the ground or carried off by other protesters desperately pressing scarves to wounds to try to stop the bleeding.

The attack marked a new level of brutality in President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s crackdown on dissent. The dramatic escalation in violence suggested Saleh was growing more fearful that the unprecedented street protests over the past month, set off by unrest across the Arab world, could unravel his 32-year grip on power in this volatile, impoverished, and gun-saturated nation. Saleh declared a state of emergency after the attack.

The bloodshed, however, failed to dislodge protesters from a large traffic circle they have dubbed “Taghyir Square’’ — Arabic for “change.’’ Hours after the shooting, thousands demanding Saleh’s ouster stood their ground, many of them hurling stones at security troops and braving live fire and tear gas.

They stormed buildings where the snipers had taken position, dragging out 10 people — including some the protesters said were paid thugs. They said the men would be handed over to judicial authorities.

The protest in the capital had drawn tens of thousands, the largest crowd yet in Yemen’s uprising. It began peacefully. A military helicopter flew low over the square just as protesters were arriving after the main Muslim prayer services of the week.

A short while later, gunfire rang out from rooftops and houses, sending the crowd into a panic. Dozens were hit and crumpled to the ground. One man ran for help cradling a young boy shot in the head.

Police used burning tires and gasoline to block demonstrators from fleeing down a main road leading to sensitive locations, including the president’s residence.

“It is a massacre,’’ said Mohammad al-Sabri, an opposition spokesman. “This is part of a criminal plan to kill off the protesters, and the president and his relatives are responsible for the bloodshed in Yemen today.’’

Witnesses said the snipers wore the beige uniforms of Yemen’s elite forces and that others were plainclothes security officers. Saleh denied at a press conference that government forces were involved, saying that residents angry over the expanding protest camp had opened fire. He ordered the formation of a committee to investigate.

A Yemeni photojournalist, Jamal al-Sharaabi, was among the dead, medical officials said. He is the first journalist killed in the unrest.

Opposition groups in Yemen held an emergency meeting last night and defiantly called on all Yemenis to join in their peaceful protest. They also called on the international community and UN Security Council to take “political and moral responsibility with measures to protect civilians.’’

The United States, which supports Yemen’s government with $250 million in military aid this year to battle one of Al Qaeda’s most active franchises, condemned the attack on protesters.

“Those responsible for today’s violence must be held accountable,’’ President Obama said. He called on Saleh to adhere to his public pledge to allow peaceful demonstrations.

Instead, Saleh declared a 30-day nationwide state of emergency that formally gave his security forces a freer hand to confront demonstrators.

The violence showed the government of Saleh and his family are increasingly worried about losing power, said Gregory Johnsen, a specialist on Yemen at Princeton University.

“He has been in power for more than three decades and he’s falling back on what he knows best, which is increasingly violent methods.’’

The tactic is unlikely to work, he predicted.

“Yemen does not have a population that’s easily cowed, so I don’t think they will be put out by fear of death,’’ he said. “It’s a heavily armed country. Many of the people there are quite confident and capable of putting security into their own hands.’’

In other violence across the Middle East yesterday, Syrian security forces in the southern town of Daraa launched a harsh crackdown on protesters calling for political freedoms, killing at least five people and marking the gravest unrest in years in one of the most repressive states in the Mideast, according to accounts from activists and social media.

In Bahrain, security forces tore down the 300-foot monument at the heart of a square purged of Shi’ite protesters this week, erasing a symbol of an uprising that’s inflaming sectarian tensions across the region.

The monument — six white curved beams topped with a huge cement pearl — was built in Pearl Square as a tribute to the Sunni-ruled kingdom’s history as a pearl-diving center. It became the backdrop to the Shi’ite majority’s uprising after protesters set up a monthlong camp at Pearl Square in the capital, Manama.

Material from the Washington Post was included in this report. top stories on Twitter

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