Snipers, shelling raise death toll in Yemen
Sana`a: Snipers, shelling, and gunfire killed at least five people in the Yemeni capital on Wednesday, violating a truce reached a day earlier between state troops and defected soldiers who joined protesters.
Civil war is looming in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country over President Ali Abdullah Saleh`s refusal to quit power after eight months of popular revolt. He is in neighboring Saudi Arabia recovering from a June assassination attempt that left him with serious burns.
Chaos could offer fertile ground to al Qaeda`s aggressive Yemen wing, which in the past few months has seized cities in a province just east of a key oil shipping channel.
One person was killed by snipers walking along the streets of "Change Square", the name protesters have given their 4-km (2.5-mile) long encampment where for eight months they have demanded an end to Saleh`s autocratic 33-year rule.
Residents of Hayel street, adjacent to the area where the victim was walking, say they believe it is full of snipers that have left them trapped inside their homes. "We`re too afraid to go out even to go to the store," said one resident.
Three other protesters were killed by stray bullets as government and defected forces clashed near Change Square. A fifth died when a mortar shell struck the camp itself.
The killings raised the death toll to 75 in four days of bloodshed, shattering a prolonged, uneasy stalemate that was set in place during fitful efforts to mediate the crisis.
"We were just sitting in the tent and suddenly we heard these explosions above. Then something hit the tent next to us. Then bam! I looked up and Tareq was hit, his leg was bleeding," said Abdelaziz, whose friend wounded in the attack.
"My stomach was in knots."
Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdbullatif al-Zayani left Sanaa empty-handed on Wednesday after two days striving to get a transfer of power pact signed to defuse the succession crisis.
The state news agency SABA quoted him as saying he would have to wait until "conditions were favorable" to achieve this, suggesting the two sides were no closer to agreement.
Under the deal brokered by wealthy Gulf neighbors anxious to restore calm in Yemen, Saleh would hand over power in a matter of months. He has backed out of it three times.
President Barack Obama told the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday that Yemeni "women and children gather by the thousands in towns and city squares every day with the hope that their determination and spilled blood will prevail over a corrupt system.
"America supports their aspirations," he said. "We must work with Yemen`s neighbors and our partners around the world to seek a path that allows for a peaceful transition of power from President Saleh, and a movement to free and fair elections as soon as possible. "
Government troops and forces loyal to a top general who defected from Saleh in March had effectively divided Sanaa between themselves recently. But protesters losing patience after months of political deadlock upset the balance on Sunday by marching into territory controlled by pro-Saleh troops.
They were met with heavy gunfire that killed 26 protesters in the worst bout of bloodshed since March, touching off heavy fighting between government troops and those of general Ali Mohsen who has thrown his weight behind the protesters.
Tens of thousands kneeled on 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.
Smoke rose from another part of Sanaa and ambulance sirens blared as mourners, some holding flowers in the air, began to march toward a graveyard shouting "justice for the martyrs".
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 the power handover deal.
Some are worried that the fighting may have 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.
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