SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency Friday, hours after pro-government gunmen firing from rooftops unleashed a bloody attack on protesters in the capital.
The death toll rose to 47 after the surprise assault, in which security forces and government supporters fired directly at protesters for more than 20 minutes, according to witnesses. In addition to the dead, hundreds of people were injured, dozens critically, medical workers said.
Doctors at the scene of the attack near Sanaa University, the protesters’ headquarters, said most of the wounds were to the head and chest, which they said indicated an intent to kill.
“Where are the human rights organizations?” said Alawi Hababi, a doctor at the university. “This is a massacre not witnessed in Sanaa over the past three decades.”
Protesters have held demonstrations daily across Yemen for more than 40 days, demanding the immediate ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Government forces have struck back with increasing violence, injuring more than 300 people in the port city of Hodeida on Wednesday. But Friday’s protests were the largest yet, with crowds estimated in the hundreds of thousands turning out in Sanaa and Taiz. There were significant rallies elsewhere, including in Hodeida and Aden.
The measure imposed Friday empowers the government to restrict Yemenis’ civil rights and monitor their communications, according to a senior Interior Ministry official.
“The country is witnessing a real crisis, and the state of emergency is the only option in ensuring that Yemen can be safe,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Hussein al-Mashdali, a lawyer and constitutional expert in Sanaa, challenged the move, saying it is not provided for in the constitution. “President Saleh does not have the authority to announce a state of emergency,” he said.
Meanwhile, Saleh said at a news conference restricted to state media representatives that he had ordered an investigation into attacks on protesters across the country and denied that the government was responsible for the killings in the capital.
“Security forces did not shoot at the protesters and were not armed,” he said.
An official at the presidential palace, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, reiterated that security forces were not involved. “The shooting came from the residents located near the area of the protest at Sanaa University,” the official said.
Youth activists said the gunfire came from the rooftops of government officials’ residences, in particular the home of Ahmed Ali Mohsen, a senior ruling party figure and governor of Mahweet province. At least 10 witnesses also said members of the ruling family, including Mohammed Mohammed Saleh, a nephew of the president’s, had been seen at the side of gunmen firing on protesters on the ground.
Witnesses said that security forces prevented ambulances from entering or leaving the area of the protest and that government vehicles took at least 20 of the wounded to the National Security Prison rather than to a hospital.
“At least seven national security vehicles took the injured to prison, and we fear they will be harassed and not treated,” said Ahmed Bahri, a lawyer who was at the protest.
Among those fatally shot Friday was Jamal al-Sharaabi, a photographer for the independent Yemeni weekly al-Masdar, the Committee to Protect Journalists said. A photographer for the BBC’s Arabic service was reportedly injured.
The opposition parties condemned the attack in forceful terms and reiterated their call for Saleh to step down. “The funeral of this regime will follow the funeral of the innocent civilians who were killed today,” said Mohammed Qahtan, the parties’ spokesman.
President Obama said in a statement Friday that those responsible for the attacks on Yemeni protesters must be held accountable. “I strongly condemn the violence that has taken place in Yemen today and call on President Saleh to adhere to his public pledge to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully,” he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that the United States was “alarmed” by the violence and was “seeking to verify reports that this is the result of actions by security forces.”
Saleh is a key ally in U.S. efforts to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of the terrorist network that is active in Yemen.
International companies have started to evacuate their foreign staffs from Yemen amid fears that the growing violence might erupt into war. The U.S. and French embassies have also urged their citizens to leave.
Almasmari is a special correspondent.