Yemen on the brink of civil war

GUNFIRE and shelling has rocked the Yemeni capital for the third straight day, with the civilian death toll reaching 53, including a baby boy shot in the head.

Amid fears of civil war, residents awoke yesterday to the sound of automatic gunfire and shelling, with witnesses saying troops of dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar were clashing with those loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

On Monday, Yemeni forces killed at least 27 people in clashes with protesters around Change Square and other parts of the capital, medics and organisers of the protests said. Among the dead were three dissident soldiers.

Twenty-six people were killed in Sanaa on Sunday, according to medics. Protest organisers said 942 people had been wounded by gunfire, with 47 critical.

The baby boy was killed yesterday when Yemeni government forces opened fire on demonstrators. “Help me. Oh, my God, look at his slaughter,” cried the father of the boy, who was killed by a bullet to the head, Arabic news channel al-Jazeera reported. “We were just in the car. I stepped out to get some food and left my two boys in the car and I heard the older one scream. The little one was shot straight through the head.”

Pictures taken in a mortuary showed a dead boy, named as Annas Muhammad Abdullah Yusef al-Saidi and less than a year old, with a bullet wound to the forehead, next to a 10-year-old who was killed the same way.

The death toll prompted renewed international condemnation of the Saleh regime. The President remains in Saudi Arabia, where he sought medical treatment after being wounded in an attack on his compound in June. He has faced Arab Spring protests since January.

Those killed yesterday included three soldiers from units commanded by General Ahmar, who switched sides months ago and promised to protect the demonstrators. “All roads are blocked in the capital and bullets are flying everywhere,” said Hakim Almasmari, a campaigner for the humna rights group Avaaz, in Sanaa. “Anyone in the streets is shot.”

At least two of those killed were hit by mortar shell fragments thought to have been fired inside the city by loyalist forces. Some of the troops who have sided with the protesters fought skirmishes with government troops on the outskirts of the city, witnesses said.

Government loyalists also opened fire on demonstrators in the southern city of Taiz, killing one person, witnesses said. Three more protesters were wounded in the port city of Aden.

Government officials said thousands of protesters stormed a camp of the Presidential Guards in the capital.

After a lull in violence in recent weeks, the killing resumed on Sunday as tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets demanding that Mr Saleh, who has agreed several times to hand over power before backing out at the last minute, should finally quit.

The international community, worried that al-Qa’ida could establish a new stronghold in the Yemeni mountains without the firm hand of Mr Saleh, who has ruled since 1978, has largely stood back from eight months of bloodshed in the impoverished country.

Abdullatif al-Zayani, secretary- general of the Gulf Co-operation Council and UN envoy Jamal bin Omar arrived in Sanaa on Monday night to complete a transfer-of-power deal and avert further violence.

“The situation is tense. It can’t continue like this. This is a sign of deep crisis,” Mr bin Omar said.

Meanwhile, Mr Saleh and King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch, met in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

The US, EU nations and others on the UN Human Rights Council used a meeting of the Geneva-based body yesterday to urge the Yemeni government to stop exercising force against peaceful protesters.

Amnesty International warned that the country was on the verge of slipping out of control.

Philip Luther, the group’s Middle East director, said: “Eruptions of violence point to a growing risk of civil war . . . The international community cannot continue to put its security concerns and fears about al-Qa’ida before human rights considerations.”

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