Sanaa: Yemeni security forces killed two protesters and wounded dozens on Wednesday as mass rallies demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh paralyzed two major cities, residents and medics said.
The violence comes as Yemen faces a growing fuel crisis so severe that the modest oil producer is considering buying crude from Saudi Arabia to counteract a blockade on its main oil- and gas-producing province by tribesmen aligned with protesters.
After three months of daily protests in the Arabian Peninsula state, demonstrators frustrated by Saleh`s reluctance to relinquish power after nearly 33 years have been seeking new ways of loosening his grip.
Many have called for extending a sporadic general strike to become a daily event.
South of the capital Sanaa, snipers killed two protesters in Taiz, where demonstrators sought to ratchet up pressure on Saleh to resign by sealing off state buildings, effectively bringing the daily rhythms of Yemen`s main industrial center to a halt.
"Stores are closed and the streets are completely empty of pedestrians, only protesters are around in the areas they are confronting (security forces)," resident Wajdi Abdullah said.
Dozens of protesters were wounded by gunfire, tear gas and beatings by bat-wielding plainclothes security men who tried to disperse their blockade on the education ministry in the city of 540,000 people, medics said.
Protesters retaliated by torching a police building. Rather than retreat, they extended their blockade to seal off Taiz`s public services and a branch of the oil ministry.
Neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia and the United States fear escalating violence could push impoverished Yemen, already driven by tribal and separatist conflict, into chaos that could allow al Qaeda`s Yemen-based wing to operate more freely.
Protesters also brought life in the city of Ibb to a virtual halt. "Almost all the stores are shut in Ibb except a few selling basic food items. No one is going to work -- this is unprecedented in this city," resident Ali Noaman said.
CITIES SHUTTING DOWN
Tribesmen have for weeks blockaded Maarib province, the main source of Yemen`s oil and gas. A shipping source told Reuters the government was losing around $3 million a day as exports were blocked.
Traders said on Wednesday Yemen was in talks with Saudi Aramco to buy around 2 million barrels of crude oil to send to its main refinery in Aden, which had been shut down for weeks due to lack of supply.
The protesters` pressure on oil supplies is also crushing for residents, as areas including Sanaa face hours of daily power cuts.
Yemen`s fragile economy is struggling to stay afloat as the currency tumbles below 240 against the dollar, and prices of basic necessities skyrocket. All this will increase hardship for the 40 percent of Yemen`s 23 million people who live on less than $2 a day and a third of whom suffer chronic hunger.
Residents in more remote areas are also suffering severe water shortages because trucks have stopped bringing water shipments due to fuel rationing.