Sanaa: Hundreds of anti-government demonstrators and government loyalists fought with rocks and batons in the Yemeni capital on Tuesday in political unrest fueled by the Egyptian uprising.
About 1,000 protesters, marching down a street that leads to the presidential palace, were blocked by anti-riot police. As they dispersed into side streets, they were confronted by hundreds of government backers and both sides hurled rocks at each other.
Police managed to stamp out the fighting. Four of the anti-government protesters were wounded, a Reuters reporter said, two bleeding from head injuries.
“Ali, leave, leave, and take your sons with you!” protesters shouted, referring to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a US ally against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing.
Many expect Saleh, who has ruled this Arabian Peninsula state for 32 years, will hand power to his son, a charge he denies.
Organised protests across Yemen in recent weeks originally were divided between calls for reform and for Saleh to resign.
But since Egyptian protesters ousted their president on Friday, more spontaneous and violent protests have erupted in Yemen and demonstrators have been targeting Saleh, carrying posters that say “Leave,” in Arabic, English and French.
Analysts doubt Yemen will see a quick, Egypt-style revolt. Any upheaval would likely unfold slowly and perhaps with more bloodshed in a country where half the population has a gun and tribal allegiances run strong.
But recent protests, which have become more spontaneous, may signal a turning point.
Protests in this poor Arabian Peninsula state have gained momentum in recent weeks, sometimes drawing tens of thousands of people, but started to turn violent on Friday, with clashes between rival protest groups and sometimes police.
The threat of turmoil in Yemen, already on the verge of collapsing into a failed state, has pushed Saleh to offer significant concessions, including a pledge to step down in 2013 and an invitation to the opposition for reconciliation talks.
Egypt solidarity rallies on Friday morphed over the last five days into anti-Saleh demonstrations not organised by the opposition, which has agreed to a dialogue with Saleh.
Yemeni protestors have complained of repression but have also pointed to economic conditions. Around 40% of Yemen’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day, while a third face chronic hunger.
Loyalists have countered demonstrators with increasing violence. Three ambulances had accompanied the protesters from the start of the march, a sign that eruptions of violence are now expected.
Some of the loyalists beat a parliament member who had joined anti-government protesters, a Reuters reporter said. Ahmed Seif Hashid said he was also stabbed, and accused the ruling party of bringing in hired men for backup.
“Most of them were not members of the ruling party, they were hired thugs,” he said. “Some of them tried to stab me in the back. The attacks here keep happening, they want to occupy the places used for protests.”
A few hundred men had been waiting for protesters as they gathered on Tuesday at Sanaa University, which has become the launch pad for anti-government rallies. Some waved pictures of Saleh, most carried batons.
“You cowards, you American collaborators! The people want dialogue to start,” Saleh loyalists chanted.
Police have tried to crackdown on both sides to prevent clashes and have generally refrained from attacking protesters. But security forces have beaten and detained journalists and police broke up a march on the presidential palace on Sunday with batons, witnesses said. Protesters then hurled rocks at police.
Even as it faces popular unrest and is fighting al Qaeda militants, Yemen is also struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and cement a ceasefire with Shi’ite insurgents in the north.