Two dead as Yemen waits for Saleh speech

Sep 25, 2011, 8:31 a.m.
Anti-government protesters, two with anti-Saleh slogans on their chest, chant slogans during a rally demanding the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa September 25, 2011. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Erika Solomon and Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni soldiers killed two tribal fighters and wounded 18 anti-government protesters on Sunday in the latest clashes in a week of bloodshed that has raised fears of a descent into all-out civil war.

The fighting came hours before President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has clung to power despite eight months of protests, was due to give his first speech since he staged a surprise return to Sanaa on Friday.

He had been recuperating in Riyadh for three months after a June assassination attempt. During negotiations mediated by Gulf states, Saleh has repeatedly promised to stop down only to change his mind.

For the first time since six days of battles between opposition and loyalist forces erupted in Sanaa, the clashes spread outside the capital. Two pro-opposition tribal fighters were killed in the mountainous outskirts of Sanaa when the army shelled an area where the two sides had been clashing.

In Sanaa, soldiers used live rounds against thousands of unarmed protesters singing and chanting "God is great, Freedom" as they marched out of their protest camp and into the capital's busy streets.

"I saw soldiers from above, in buildings and on the bridge," said Mohammed al-Mas, 21, a protester whose back was drenched in blood from a gunshot wound. "Then the gunfire started and I ran back, but I suddenly felt the shot in the back."

A local photographer on the front line said the violence was caused by one soldier who opened fire with a machine gun, but other protesters said they saw 10 troops open fire.

Eighteen people were wounded and medics said two were in critical condition. Doctors drenched in blood worked on bullet wounds at a makeshift hospital in "Change Square," the name protesters have given the shanty town of tents they have staked out in the middle of Sanaa.

The U.N. Security Council urged Yemen on Sunday to allow more access to humanitarian aid. Doctors treating protesters have complained they are running low on medicine and the International Committee of the Red Cross says its workers have been threatened and assaulted.

Anxiety is high in Sanaa as sporadic clashes break out across the city and residents construct roadblocks in the hope of stopping gunmen.

Locals and diplomats involved in political negotiations to ease Saleh out say the direction the crisis takes will hinge on president's words on Sunday evening.

Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi assured diplomats that conditions would improve in Yemen. "We are at the doors of a complete, comprehensive solution by using all the forces of good," the state news agency quoted him as saying.

"We will watch with them from televisions inside the tents, maybe he will go down in history by doing the right thing for his people and stepping down," said Mohammed al-Qubati, a doctor treating the protesters.

"This is the last moment for that, otherwise it is gone for good."

Protesters have grown even more wary of Saleh's intentions after some 17 people were killed on Saturday when government forces attacked their camp in Sanaa, according to witnesses and medics, bringing the death toll in five days of fighting to around 100.

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