Clashes erupt in Yemen between pro- and anti-government protesters

February 14, 2011

Government supporters clutching sticks, knives and rocks clashed with hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators Monday, as this Middle Eastern capital was rocked for the fourth day by protests inspired by the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

Scores of riot police officer attempted to separate the two sides, but the pro-government crowds appeared determined to chase away foes who demanded the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled this impoverished nation for 32 years.

“Hey Ali, get, get out,” the pro-democracy protesters chanted. “There is no solution except to leave.”

Monday’s protests were the latest indication that Yemen’s pro-democracy movement has been gaining momentum since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday. While previous demonstrations were larger, attracting tens of thousands, and peaceful, the past four days have been marked by violence and more spontaneous uprisings. The demonstrations are also attracting a wider cross-section of Yemenis, from lawyers to laborers, students to lawmakers.

For now, the protests are much smaller than those that toppled the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, but the increasing violence highlights the potential for instability in a nation already reeling from internal conflicts, massive poverty and a resurgent branch of al-Qaeda. Analysts say that any upheaval in Yemen, abundant in weapons and ruled by tribal codes, could turn more violent than those elsewhere.

In an effort to diffuse the tensions and prevent an Egypt-style rebellion, Saleh has offered significant concessions, including a pledge not to run for another term in office and not anoint his son has his heir apparent. And Yemen’s political opposition has agreed to sit down again with the government to discuss reconciliation and power sharing.

“We are seeking to solve the crises through dialogue,” said Mohammed Basendwah, a top opposition leader. “We cannot stop others who are oppressed from protesting. People are demanding change and want their rights.”

The continuing protests suggest a widening divide between the demands the activists and opposition leaders who have sought political reforms rather than regime change.

On Sunday, Saleh, a vital U.S. ally in the war on terror, postponed a trip to the United States scheduled for later this month because of the regional turmoil, according to Yemen’s state news agency.

Monday’s clashes unfolded at Sanaa University, the epicenter of the protests. Eyewitnesses described a sudden volley of rocks thrown by the pro-government mobs at the protesters, even as security was tight, with as many as 300 riot police officers.

Rocks were thrown at us, and they beat us with bats,” said Khaled al-Anesi, a well-known human rights activist.

Sultan Qubati was also attacked and beaten severely. “We are calling for peaceful protests, but the Yemeni government is making the same mistake Egypt and Tunisia did,” said Qubati, referring to how state-sponsored violence in those countries backfired and led to even greater masses demanding change.

It was unclear how many protesters were injured Monday, with estimates ranging from five to 50 people.

In the southern city of Taiz, hundreds of anti-government demonstrators also took to the streets and clashed with Saleh’s supporters, who rode motorcycles and attacked with sticks and knives, said eyewitnesses. Police, they said, did little to stop the mayhem.

“Soldiers saw we were getting beaten and did not get involved,” said Mohammed Hatem Sharabi, an anti government protester, who said he was struck with sticks. “We are the people. Soldiers should look after our safety, not the safety of the rulers.”

raghavans@washpost.com

Special correspondent Hakim Al Masmari reported from Sanaa and correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan reported from Cairo.

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