SANAA, (Reuters) – At least 17 protesters and soldiers were killed during an attack by government forces on an opposition protest camp in Yemen’s capital after President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned after a three-month absence, witnesses and protesters said yesterday.
Hundreds fled from the midnight raid, involving mortar and sniper fire, that lasted until noon yesterday on “Change Square”, the heart of an uprising where thousands have camped for eight months calling for Saleh to relinquish power.
The president’s main military rival, General Ali Mohsen, said Saleh’s return on Friday was a “major catastrophe” and called on Gulf and Western powers to stop him igniting a civil war.
Mohsen said in a statement that his troops were in a position to remove the leader from power. “The pro-revolutionary army is capable of confrontation and can decide the situation and restore the power usurped by this gang (Saleh’s family).”
Witnesses and protesters said the forces attacking “Change Square” included the elite Republican Guard and Central Security forces. Interior Minister Muttahar al-Masri denied a raid took place, blaming the gunfire on “extremists”.
“We couldn’t sleep because of the strikes …The buildings around us were shaking. Look at the chaos that Saleh’s return has already caused. These thugs were encouraged by his return,” said a protester who gave his name as Mohammad.
Saleh went to neighbouring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in June for wounds suffered in an assassination attempt. After his return, he said he wanted a truce to end days of fighting in the capital. This would allow peace talks to take place, he said. “I return to the nation carrying the dove of peace and the olive branch,” Saleh was quoted as saying by state television.
He was also quoted by state news agency Saba calling for Sana’a to be cleared of “all armed elements” and for checkpoints and barriers to be removed.
At least six protesters have been killed since last night, according to a doctor at a mosque converted into a field hospital. Also killed were 11 soldiers from Mohsen’s First Armoured Division, the generals’ office said.
“I was doing my night shift, and suddenly I heard all these explosions and I realised we must be getting shelled. The next minute, a mortar fell near me and exploded, I’m covered in shrapnel,” said Yussuf al-Hamzy, 20, a Mohsen soldier who was guarding the square early on Saturday morning.
“I think they’re trying to go after us. They want to push us out and centralise at the south end of Change Square and they need to get us to leave first,” said Hamzy, his face covered with gashes from shrapnel wounds, a bloodied arm bandaged.
Dozens of wounded streamed into makeshift clinics overnight. “We had one killed in a terrible way by the mortar fire — we only have half a body,” doctor Mohammed al-Qubati said at a mosque converted into a field hospital. Protesters in the opposition encampment on the 4-km stretch of avenue dubbed “Change Square” said buildings and tents were on fire and protesters had retreated about half a kilometre.