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Yemen toll grows as fighting spreads

The wounded and the dead were carried through alleys beneath the gaze of rooftop snipers in Yemen’s capital Monday as men with rifles guarded their homes and protesters clashed with security forces amid explosions and spirals of smoke.

There seemed no safe place in the barricaded ancient city of Sana, which has become a caldron of revolt for tribesmen, demonstrators and former soldiers battling forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen has skirted the edge of civil war for months, but the violence of recent days suggests the rage among so many well-armed factions may be uncontainable.

At least 25 people were killed and hundreds wounded when government soldiers fired on mostly unarmed protesters for the second day in the capital. Twenty-six people died Sunday, shattering a stalemate between opposition and pro-Saleh forces. Violence spread to other cities across the country, including Aden and Taizz. Media reports said shelling and gunfire echoed in Taizz into Monday’s dawn.

The prospect of more bloodshed in Sana intensified during the day when Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh Ahmar, commander of the 1st Armored Division who defected in March and joined the protests, ordered his troops to expand the perimeter protecting tens of thousands of demonstrators. Ahmar’s units fired artillery at Saleh’s security forces, who battled to keep activists and anti-regime tribesmen from advancing on public buildings and the presidential palace.

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“I am upset and angry. My friend has been severely injured. I curse Ahmar’s soldiers and I curse the troops of the regime,” said Ahmed Zurqah, a protester. “The demonstrators wanted this revolution to be peaceful, but the soldiers on both sides want this to turn into a civil war.”

Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, has refused to yield after months of protests inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. The president remains in Saudi Arabia recuperating from wounds sustained in a June rocket attack on his compound. He has resisted pressure from neighboring nations and the U.S. to step aside; his latest proposal to transfer power to his vice president has been met with skepticism.

“I fear the situation will get out of hand. There is no new initiative to cool things off and the other political players doubt that Saleh will abide by any terms that are set,” Saadaldeen Talib, a former opposition parliamentarian, told Reuters news service. “Complete disintegration and chaos might come very soon.”

United Nations negotiator Jamal Benomar and Abdullatif Zayani, head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, arrived in Sana to meet with Saleh’s General People’s Congress and the main opposition coalition, Joint Meeting Parties. But even if a deal is reached, it may be too late to calm the fury and mistrust that many Yemenis feel for the government and the opposition.

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Unconfirmed reports suggested that even as gunfire rattled across the capital, there were attempts to reach a cease-fire between Ahmar’s soldiers and Saleh’s troops. There were also reports that thousands of protesters had seized a base of the Presidential Guard, but state TV showed Saleh’s forces controlled the headquarters. Many Yemenis didn’t know what to believe as darkness fell.

“I cannot wait for government troops to protect my home,” said Emad Gadabi, who, like many men across the capital, stood on a street brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle, caught between pro- and antigovernment elements. “I have my gun and I will take care of my home. People cannot stand by and be attacked.”

Shops were shuttered and roads were nearly empty. Families hunkered in their homes and watched news on satellite TV rather than venture outside. Sandbags were stacked near Sana University and Change Square -- the epicenter of the protests -- and residents locked their doors to block government-backed snipers from using rooftops.

Medics and doctors were exhausted as motorcycles carried the injured and families collected bodies from morgues and mosques. More than 600 people had been wounded over two days of violence. Young men rushing amid exploding mortar rounds and sniper fire passed one another near the protesters’ front line in the so-called Kentucky Square, saying: “It’s war. It’s war.”

Foreign Minister Abubakr Qirbi told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that his country “expresses its sorrow and condemnation for all acts of violence and bloodshed as those that happened [Sunday] in Sana.... It is unfortunate that these events occurred at a time while some solutions for the political crisis started to appear.”

Yemen’s last civil war ended in 1994. Since then Saleh has stayed in power by manipulating tribes and exploiting the nation’s many political fault lines. But in recent years, with drought and poverty rising and revenues plummeting, Saleh has been unable to generate largesse to keep tribal leaders and his political opponents sated.

“Widespread hunger and chronic malnutrition have taken hold in Yemen,” says a report released Monday by Oxfam, an international charity organization. “A protracted political stalemate over much of the past six months has left the government in paralysis, prompting a fuel crisis that has brought the economy to the verge of collapse.”

The protests started in winter with university students and grew to include much of the population.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Al-Aalayaa is a special correspondent.


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