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Yemen death toll rises to 54 as U.N. envoy, Gulf mediator arrive in Sana’a

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At least 54 people were killed over two days in the deadliest crackdown yet on pro-democracy protesters in Sanaa, triggering fierce gunbattles on Monday between soldiers who had defected to the opposition and those loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The military confrontation between opposition forces loyal to defected General Ali Mohsen and government troops was triggered by a government crackdown on two days of protests, threatening a new and even more violent phase in the eight-month standoff in Yemen.

Demonstrators ratcheted up their protests on Sunday to try to break a stalemate, and government forces responded with heavy fire, while snipers shot at protesters from rooftops.

At least 28 people were killed on Monday, raising the death toll to 54 over two days.

Gulf Arab mediator Abdul Latif al-Zayani, meanwhile, arrived in Yemen on Monday, according to Al Arabiya correspondent, shortly after the arrival of the United Nations envoy Jamal bin Omar.

A Western diplomat in Sana'a told AFP that the signing of a U.N. roadmap which sets a mechanism for the transfer of power from embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh hands to his deputy was scheduled for later Monday.

Violence re-erupted in the Yemeni capital after a weeks-long stalemate. Snipers deployed on rooftops around Change Square, the epicenter of anti-regime protests in Sana’a, killed three passers-by while security forces and regime supporters killed three others a few kilometers (miles) away.

Yemeni troops fired into the air to disperse anti-government protesters and several others were rushed to hospital with gunshot wounds, Reuters reported.

Injured people were brought on motorbikes to a makeshift hospital in Change Square where protesters have been camped for eight months seeking Saleh’s ouster.

The clashes came as protesters tried to push further into territory held by government forces after extending their camp overnight.

Yemen’s government expressed its “sorrow and condemnation” of the violence.

“The government of Yemen expresses its sorrow and condemnation for all acts of violence and bloodshed as those happened yesterday in Sana’a,” foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi told the UN Human Rights Council.

“The government will investigate and hold accountable all those who were in charge of these acts,” he added, according to AFP.

“It is unfortunate that these events occurred at a time while some solutions for the political crisis started to appear,” said the minister.

“The widespread proliferation of weapons in the hands of Yemenis unfortunately makes things more complicated in such circumstances,” he added.

Saleh, who is recovering in Saudi Arabia from wounds received in an explosion in Sana’a in June, last week authorized Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi to negotiate a power transfer with the opposition.

But the opposition has dismissed calls for dialogue before Saleh, in power since 1978, signs a Gulf-brokered deal that would see him hand power over to Hadi in return for amnesty from prosecution for himself and his family.

Sana’a for months has been divided between General Ali Mohsen’s defected troops and loyalist forces in a maze of checkpoints, roadblocks and armored vehicles that many worry could quickly tip inflamed tensions into military confrontation.

Protesters on Monday managed to extend the territory of their camp by around one km, and hundreds slept there overnight. Ali Mohsen’s troops entered the area and were fortifying it with sandbags, Reuters reported.

The new staked-out area brought protesters and the defected troops backing them within 500 meters of Ahmed Ali Saleh, the president’s son and head of the Republican Guard units loyal to the government.

Unrest extended to the south of Yemen as well.

In Taez, another hotbed of anti-government protests, two people were killed and 10 others were injured by security gunfire on Monday, Al Arabiya correspondent reported.

Opposition sources said there was heavy shelling overnight by security forces after they too held large rallies on Sunday.

In the southern port city of Aden, witnesses said some residents were burning cars and blocking roads with rocks, frustrated by long hours without electricity as temperatures rose to 54 degrees Celsius (129 degrees Fahrenheit).