At least seven pro-democracy protesters were injured by snipers in Taez, Southern Yemen, witnesses said. In a day of fluid reports, six soldiers were killed and seven wounded in Rida, an Al Arabiya correspondent said Saturday afternoon.
The protest came a day after a defiant President Ali Abdullah Saleh rebuffed a call from his longtime ally, the United States, to agree to step down “now.”
The violence against the protesters also comes after pro-democracy protesters said they would launch a civil disobedience campaign in Aden, Taez and other southern provinces in defiance of President Saleh,whose forces appeared to have no compunction to counter the nonviolent campaign with new violence.
There was also a widespread shutdown of public enterprises and shops in the formerly independent south, residents said, although a general strike was less well observed in Sana’a.
The capital saw huge rival demonstrations by supporters and opponents of the embattled president on Friday.
Mr. Saleh told the loyalist rally: “We will not remain passive in the face of law-breakers,” and warned the opposition to “stop playing with fire.”
The spokesman of the parliamentary opposition, Mohammed Qahtan, told Al Arabiya television the president’s remarks amounted to a “declaration of war.”
Elite Republican Guards troops killed at least three anti-government demonstrators in the southern city of Ibb on Friday, opposition sources and witnesses told AFP.
Mr. Saleh said on Friday he would confront challenges from opponents, whom he called “saboteurs,” and added they should use the ballot box if they want to end his nearly 33 years in power.
“We will confront a challenge with a challenge. Whoever wants power should head to the ballot box ... stop playing with fire,” he said as tens of thousands of people rallied in counter demonstrations for and against his rule, according to Agence-France Presse.
“I call on the opposition to join in a constructive dialogue under any organization and in any place,” he said, neglecting to mention that representatives of pro-democracy protesters and other opposition figures had indeed done that—in dialogues sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Mr. Saleh made no direct reference to the United States, but the remarks came a day after Washington, his long-time backer, asked the Yemeni president to sign “now” a Gulf-led initiative that would see him out of power within a month.
Huge crowds had earlier gathered in Sana’a before Friday prayers to demand the departure of President Saleh, who deployed armored vehicles and hundreds of troops on the streets of the Yemeni capital, Reuters reported.
Witnesses said military academy students with batons had joined the soldiers facing a vast throng of demonstrators stretching seven kilometers (four miles) down a main street in the capital. Flag-waving supporters of President Saleh assembled in another district.
Heavily armed Republican Guards and military vehicles were seen reinforcing troops already guarding the presidential palace, radio station and other key state buildings in Sana’a, an AFP correspondent said.
Tensions were high ahead of Friday’s demonstrations arranged by both sides as they have done for the past three months on the day of weekly Muslim prayers.
Gunfire erupted in Taez, Yemen’s third biggest city, when security forces tried to bar protesters from going to a main street to perform prayers there on what they call a “Friday of Decision.” Mr. Saleh’s supporters were calling it a “Friday of Unity.”
The 65-year-old president has refused to sign the deal mediated by the six-nation GCC this month, enraging protesters, many of whom had anyway opposed a provision giving the president and his entourage immunity from prosecution.
Qatar pulled out of the agreement on Thursday, even as the United States and France urged all parties to sign it as the best hope for an orderly and peaceful transition of power.
President Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress, said in a text message distributed by the official Saba news agency that it welcomed the decision by Qatar, which the president has previously accused of inciting months of demonstrations aimed at unseating him.
Qatar had said its action was due to “the stalling in signing the proposed agreement ... the continued escalation, the intensity of the confrontations and a lack of wisdom.”
A government source, who asked not to be identified, said: “Yemen will continue working with the rest of its brothers in the GCC for the success of the initiative,” according to Reuters.
Yet no diplomatic outcome seemed imminent in a conflict that has cost more than 160 lives, as well as disrupting oil output and crippling the economy of the Arab world's poorest country of 24 million people.
International alarm has mounted over instability in Yemen, home to an ambitious wing of Al Qaeda, whose leader has sworn vengeance for the killing by US forces of their chief Osama Bin Laden on May 1.
“The United States is deeply concerned by recent violence throughout Yemen, and joins European Union High Representative (Catherine) Ashton in strongly condemning these troubling actions,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Calling on all parties to sign the GCC deal for Mr. Saleh’s departure, he said: “This transition must begin immediately.”
France, which called for the agreement to be signed without delay, deplored “the excessive use of force against demonstrators” and urged Yemeni authorities to protect them.
“We reiterate our hope that this agreement can now be signed as soon as possible and call the President of the Republic of Yemen and all Yemeni parties to implement it without delaying the transition,” Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero of France said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer of Germany said that repression was not the answer to the political vacuum and the country’s deepening problems, adding that those responsible had to be held to account.
“President Saleh is requested, with regard to the mediation offer by the Gulf Cooperation Council, to contribute to an orderly political transition without delay,” he said in a statement. “I welcome the fact that the European Union has put its support clearly behind this offer.”
The deaths brought to 179 the number killed in three months of protests against Saleh's regime, according to a toll compiled from activists and medics.
(Dina Al-Shibeeb, an editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Abeer Tayel, also an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: email@example.com)