6th day of unrest in Yemen; more protests in Libya and Bahrain

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Hakim Almasmari
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 10:20 AM

SANAA, YEMEN - Hundreds of protesters demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh took to the streets for a sixth straight day Wednesday, and anti-government protesters in Libya called for the ouster of longtime ruler Moammar Gaddafi.

Demonstrations spread to the southern Yemeni cities of Aden and Taiz, and thousands also continued to clamor for democratic reforms in Bahrain, as the seismic effects of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia continued to ripple from Africa to the Persian Gulf.

Hundreds of Libyans clashed with security forces in Benghazi, the country's second-largest city. Most were demanding that Gaddafi step down, according to the Associated Press.

"No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah," protesters chanted. Others cried out, "Down, down to corruption and to the corrupt."

Police and pro-government groups swiftly clamped down on the demonstrators, who - like their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia - have used Facebook and Twitter to rally people to their cause. A major demonstration is planned for Thursday, according to AP.

In Bahrain, thousands of people spent the night in a makeshift tent camp in Manama's Pearl Square. It was the third day of the Egyptian-style occupation of the capital's landmark plaza.

Two Bahrainis have been killed so far in protest-related violence. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa promised in a rare address on national television Tuesday to investigate the deaths and enact democratic reforms. After initially maintaining a heavy presence at the demonstrations, police have pulled back sharply, apparently in hopes of lowering tensions.

Protesters are calling for a new constitution and more freedoms. The nation's majority Shiites have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the ruling Sunni elite. Last year, a crackdown triggered weeks of riots and clashes in Shiite villages, underscoring the potential for unrest in one of the Middle East's wealthiest countries.

Here in the Yemeni capital, hundreds of police officers tried to block students and activists at Sanaa University from joining demonstrators marching through the capital on Wednesday. Some police fired shots in the air to try and disperse the crowds.

Pro-government mobs, wielding daggers and batons, chased away groups of students. But some students later managed to leave the campus - the epicenter of the protests until now - and join other demonstrators in the streets.

About 500 protesters gathered in Aden, with a similar number in Taiz, Reuters reported. Resentment against the government has boiled for months in both cities. "No more marginalization of the people of Aden! No more corruption and oppression," chanted protesters in Aden.

A young protester was reported killed and four others injured in clashes with security forces, according to local news reports. In retaliation, protesters raided a local council government complex.

Aden has long been a hotbed of dissent, with secessionists seeking independence and others demanding a greater share of official jobs, oil revenues and economic benefits from Yemen's government, which is dominated by residents from the north.

Although this week's protests in Yemen have been numerically smaller than those seen in previous days, they have become more spontaneous. The demonstrations were sparked by youths who are energetically demanding that Saleh, who has ruled the country for more than three decades, step down.

On Tuesday, several hundred pro- and anti-government demonstrators clashed near the old campus of Sanaa University, with the fights spilling into side streets, witnesses said. The tensions erupted when government supporters attacked their rival protesters with knives, rocks and sticks, forcing them to disperse.

Witnesses said that Yemeni security forces beat some anti-government demonstrators and that police did not attempt to stop the violence. Several protesters, including a lawmaker, were wounded, according to witnesses.

"They were bleeding and stepped on by security men," said Abdul Rahman Barman, a human rights activist. "Security was attacking as if the protesters were animals and had no reason to live.

"What wrongs did these youths do to deserve being attacked?" he added.

The protests underscore the rising tensions in this Middle Eastern country since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down last week. In Taiz, hundreds of protesters have staged a mass sit-in on the streets, vowing to remain there until Saleh, who has ruled for more than 32 years, resigns.

Saleh pledged under the pressure of earlier protests to step down in 2013 and not pass on the reins of power to his son.

Top Yemeni officials are voicing concern about the unrest escalating in a nation already grappling with myriad problems, including internal conflicts and an ambitious branch of al-Qaeda.

"Some people want to drag the country toward a crisis and try to undermine the security and stability of the country through inciting anarchy and violence," Saleh told sheiks and local officials Tuesday, according to the state news agency.

In Yemen, the region's poorest country, many protesters view a change of government as the only way to improve their lives; an estimated 40 percent of Yemen's 23 million people make less than $2 a day.

In Sanaa, the anti-government demonstrators chanted: "The people want the regime to fall," while others carried placards directed at Saleh that read, "Leave."

Others yelled: "Change is your only option."

A few miles away, at the new campus of Sanaa University, long the focal point of the anti-government demonstrators, hundreds of Saleh supporters took over the area Tuesday. The move appeared to be a symbolic attempt to assert the government supporters' strength in the face of the continuing protests.

"With our blood and souls, we sacrifice for Ali," the crowds chanted.

But one member of Saleh's ruling party quit in protest Tuesday.

"The ruling party has failed to fight corruption and is involved in attacking peaceful demonstrators," said Abdul Kareem Aslami, a member of parliament. "This is against my morals, and that is why I must resign."

Top ruling party officials deny involvement in the attacks and say that Saleh supporters are acting on their own.

Human rights groups have criticized the violence committed by Saleh's loyalists and security forces, which have also beaten and detained journalists. Yemen's journalists union denounced the attacks, saying they would widen the unrest in the country.

"The attacks on protesters and journalists using sticks and knives will take the Yemeni government one step closer to being like Tunisia and Egypt," said Saeed Thabit, the head of the union.

Hakim Almasmari is a special correspondent.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company