Rockets hit a protest camp in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, killing at least two people on Tuesday, witnesses said, on the third day of violence since the government’s deadliest crackdown yet on pro-democracy demonstrations.
Heavy shelling and machinegun fire rocked the city early in the morning, marking an escalation in Yemen’s eight-month stand-off between troops loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and protesters, backed by soldiers who have defected to the opposition.
Witnesses told Reuters at least three missiles struck the camp just after morning prayers at about 5am local time (2am GMT).
“The rockets hit some men who were walking outside past a market. I have two dead and five hurt,” said Dr Mohammed al-Qubati, the director of a field hospital at the protest camp on a site which the protesters have nicknamed Change Square.
“We were walking back from prayers. All of a sudden a rocket hit close by from out of nowhere, and some people fell down. And then a second one came and that’s when we saw the two martyred,” Manea al-Matari, a protest organiser camped in the square told Reuters by phone.
No one from the government was immediately available to comment on the reports. Officials on Monday said government soldiers were not targeting protesters and blamed the bloodshed on the opposition.
At least 56 people were killed on Sunday and Monday, said doctors and witnesses, after demonstrators demanding an end to Saleh’s 33-year rule ratcheted up their protests.
Government forces responded to the demonstrations with heavy fire, while snipers shot at activists from rooftops, Reuters journalists said.
The violence escalated on Monday when opposition forces loyal to defected General Ali Mohsen started fighting with government troops. Mohsen, a top Yemeni general, dealt a major blow to Saleh’s regime when he and his troops defected following an earlier crackdown in March which killed 52 people.
A witness close to the camp said Yemen’s Republican Guard forces had taken up a position on a mountain and started shelling Mohsen’s First Armoured Division base in the city on Tuesday. The protest camp may have been hit by stray shells, the witness added.
Diplomats who have struggled for months to help the opposition and government reach a political deal have long feared the rising tensions in the capital of this impoverished Arabian Peninsula state could deteriorate into a full military confrontation in Sana’a.
Many of the protesters had retreated to the Change Square camp on Monday, escaping violence in another area.
Civilian bystanders were also hurt.
“Help me, oh my God look at this slaughter!” said a man carrying the bloodied body of his small child, killed by gunfire on Monday.
“We were just in the car … I stepped out to get some food and left my two boys in the car. I heard the older one scream. My little one was shot straight through the head.”
Diplomats and Yemeni politicians scrambled on Monday to speed up a long-stalled transition plan under which Saleh, who is recovering in neighbouring Saudi Arabia from a June assassination attempt, would step down.
A source in Yemen’s political opposition said they were meeting with government officials and diplomats to try and push through a deal. UN mediator Jamal bin Omar and Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdbullatif al-Zayani arrived in Sana’a on Monday and were expected to join the talks.
Zayani was expected to push for the signing of a Gulf-brokered transition plan which Saleh backed out of three times before.
“There’s a possibility of trying to push through the Gulf plan for signing this week,” an opposition source said.
Protesters vowed to march again on Tuesday to condemn the crackdown and lack of international response.
Several countries including the United States condemned the violence but gave little indication of how they planned to exert pressure on Saleh.
“The United States regrets the deaths and injuries of many people during protest marches in Sanaa yesterday. In this tense situation, we call upon all parties to exercise restraint,” the US embassy in Sanaa said on Monday. – Reuters