20 Sep 2011

Yemen forces shell protest camp

Government shells kill at least six in Yemen’s capital Sanaa amid escalating street battles, bringing the death toll to 58 after three days of the heaviest violence since the uprising began.

Four shells were fired at the protest camp in Change Square, where thousands of people opposed to President Saleh’s 33-year rule have been camped out since January.

It is not clear if the unarmed protest camp was deliberately targeted or if Saleh’s forces were targeting the nearby base of the defected General Ali Mohsen, the president’s half-brother, who controls around a third of Yemen’s armed forces.

His forces have been engaged in rapidly escalating gun and artillery fights with government troops in the capital.

Street fighting has also spread for the first time to a wealthier neighbourhood, Hadda, that is home to both senior government officials and leading members of the powerful al-Ahmar tribe that is aligned with the protesters.

The continued bloodshed comes after 21 anti-government protesters were killed on Monday and 21 were killed on Sunday. Nearly a thousand people have been reportedly injured.

Read more: The main players as Yemen peers into the abyss

Eyewitness account

Freelance journalist Tom Finn, who has been in Yemen throughout the unrest, told Channel 4 News that today’s shelling of the camp marks a significant escalation in the violence.

“Today we’ve seen the shelling of the protest camp, which is something that hasn’t happened before,

“Added to that, government snipers on roofs, in plain clothes, have been shooting people.”

I asked an old man: ‘Aren’t you scared?’ He said: the only thing I fear is Allah. Tom Finn, journalist in Sanaa

Mr Finn said General Ali Mohsen’s troops were fighting for control of a roundabout near Change Square, and that protesters were being caught in the crossfire.

But despite the onslaught, Mr Finn said the spirit of the protesters remains undimmed.

“There was an old man pushing his way right to the front where the shooting was taking place,” Mr Finn said.

“I asked him: ‘Aren’t you scared?’ He said: the only thing I fear is Allah,

“There is a strong tradition of martyrdom in Yemen, it is an almost scary sense of self-belief and confidence,” Mr Finn added.

International condemnation

Several countries including the United States, who have previously given billions of dollars to Yemen’s security forces, condemned the violence but gave little indication of how they planned to put 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.

In a statement, the EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton expressed a similar sentiment, describing the level of violence as “deplorable”.

“The EU reiterates the need to sign and implement the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative,” the statement read.

Diplomats and Yemeni politicians have been trying to salvage a long-stalled transition plan brokered by the GCC.

Under the deal President Saleh, who is currently recuperating in neighbouring Saudi Arabia from an assasination attempt in June, would step down and hand over power to the opposition.

Saudi ‘sends tanks’

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has reportedly dispatched a convoy of armored vehicles and military assistance to Yemen, apparently to help Sanaa crack down on the popular revolution.

Sources connected with the Yemeni opposition were cited by the independent pan-Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi as saying, “A motorcade of Saudi armoured vehicles and military aid entered the Yemeni soil to help the forces of the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

The sources in the newspaper said this was the second time Saudi Arabia had sent tanks to its poor southern neighbour since the uprising began.

The article went on to detail Riyadh’s history of aiding Sanaa in carrying out a campaign against Yemen’s north-based Shia population, known as the Houthis.