Yemeni forces attack main opposition camp

Sep 23, 2011, 5:12 p.m.
A defected army soldier waves his rifle as he shouts slogans with anti-government protesters during a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa September 23, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Erika Solomon

SANAA (Reuters) - The main opposition protest camp in Yemen's capital Sanaa came under heavy mortar and sniper attacks on Saturday, hours after President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned from a three-month absence, protesters and medical staff said.

One witness said troops loyal to Saleh had carried out the assault and cleared thousands of protesters from the camp, the heart of an uprising calling for his overthrow. The report could not be verified.

"They (the government forces) used armored vehicles and weapons, rifles. It was an intense fight ... My house was shaking like crazy ... There are no protesters there now -- it's just armed people," said the witness, who lives near the camp.

Protesters said at least one person had been killed and an unknown number injured in the assault.

"We have ... one killed in a terrible way by the mortar fire -- we only have half a body," doctor Mohammed al-Qubati said at a mosque converted into a field hospital.

Protesters in the opposition encampment on the 4-km stretch of avenue that they have dubbed "Change Square" said some tents were on fire and that there had also been sniper attacks.

Saleh said on his return to Yemen on Friday that he wanted to see a truce to end days of heavy fighting in the capital, but opponents said they feared more bloodshed and the United States demanded he relinquish power.

"I return to the nation carrying the dove of peace and the olive branch," Saleh was quoted as saying by state television.

Saleh, who went to neighboring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in June when he suffered severe burns in an assassination attempt, said a ceasefire would enable peace talks to take place.


His reappearance raised big questions over the future of the fractious Arabian Peninsula state, which has been paralyzed by protests against his 33-year rule since January.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We urge President Saleh to initiate a full transfer of power and arrange for presidential elections to be held before the end of then year.

"The Yemeni people have suffered enough and deserve a path toward a better future."

In Sanaa this week, a months-old standoff between loyalist troops and forces backing anti-Saleh protesters erupted into a full-blown battle that killed more than 100 people in five days.

Yemen, one of the region's poorest countries, also faces a worsening insurgency by al Qaeda militants, an uneasy truce with Shi'ite fighters in the north and separatism in the south.

Moments after state television's announcement of Saleh's return, Sanaa's streets erupted with bursts of gunfire and fireworks. Shelling occurred in the capital's Hasaba district.

Opponents saw his return as an attempt to rally for war and said they expected more bloodshed, while his supporters reacted with joy and said he could restore order.

"I'm so excited," said Akram al-Aghbari, a doorman. "He is an honorable and great man. I know he's coming to stop this terrible violence. People here without him only know how to rule with weapons, but with him back, just you watch."

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