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Yemeni forces attack main opposition camp

Sep 24, 2011, 12:13 a.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 Sanaa came under heavy mortar fire and sniper attack early on Saturday, just hours after President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned from a three-month absence calling for peace and an end to fighting in the capital.

One witness and protesters said troops loyal to Saleh, including the elite Republican Guard and Central Security forces assaulted the southern end of "Change Square," the heart of an uprising where thousands have camped out for eight months calling for Saleh's overthrow.

Hundreds fled from the southern end of the camp, they said, as the attack continued from midnight on Friday into Saturday.

"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.

The reports could not be verified.

Protesters said at least three people had been killed and 25 hit by sniper fire and shelling. A shaken medic said some of the bodies were severely mangled.

"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 they have dubbed "Change Square" said some buildings and tents were on fire and that protesters had retreated by about half a kilometer.

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.

QUESTIONS OVER FUTURE

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

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

In Sanaa this week, protesters escalated their marches by entering territory controlled by state forces, sparking a full-blown battle between loyalist and pro-opposition troops. Some 100 protesters were killed in five days of bloodshed.

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 rocked the capital's Hasaba district through the night in battles between heavily armed pro-opposition and government forces who nearly sparked civil war in the capital last May.

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