At least 40 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, yesterday as snipers opened fire from rooftops surrounding demonstrators leaving Friday prayers in the deadliest day since nationwide anti-government protests erupted more than a month ago.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared a state of emergency throughout the country – a key United States ally in the region – barring all citizens from carrying weapons and giving security forces wide-reaching powers to confront the demonstrators demanding an end to Mr Saleh's 30-year rule.
Immediately after Friday prayers, two plumes of black smoke billowed a few hundred metres away from the centre of a protest camp in front of Sana'a University. As thousands of protesters surged to see what was going on, automatic weapons sounded.
Men in plainclothes shot from windows and rooftops, creating panic and chaos among the tens of thousands of people. When shooting began, the usual heavy police presence surrounding the protest camp was significantly sparser than usual. Protesters said the gunmen were pro-government "thugs", while Amnesty International said in a statement the attackers were believed to be members of the security forces.
Doctors struggled to cope with the numbers of the wounded, while medics said that many of dead arrived with gunshots to the head and neck. "This is murder, absolutely. This is murder worse than Gaddafi," Shukri al-Shaibani, a field hospital doctor, said, his face splattered with blood. "This is the price of change."
Local residents living near the protest camp have built brick and mortar walls around their neighbourhoods, which left many people trapped as the bullets rained down. The fires set on the main road also prevented people from fleeing the carnage. Demonstrators tried to retaliate by hurling stones.
"We ran to police and told them that there were thugs shooting at us. They told us it wasn't their duty to stop them. These are plainclothes police shooting at us, just as they have before," said Ahmed Ahmed, 35, a protester fleeing the violence.
The wounded were carried from the fighting to a makeshift hospital in a nearby mosque, where doctors participating in the protests were treating the injured. The hundreds of wounded overwhelmed the medical staff as doctors and nurses scrambled to save lives. As more critically wounded were brought in, the small hospital descended into panic. Doctors and nurses covered in blood drained fluid from the chest cavities of patients suffering from gunshots to the abdomen, using up what precious little supplies they had.
Ambulances continued to rush into the mosque courtyard hours after the shooting had stopped. Those able to be stabilised were transported to the nearby Science and Technology Hospital. Doctors said that many were still in critical condition. "Saleh isn't a Muslim, look at what he's done," protester Muhammad Ahmed said as he gave water to the wounded.
As protests rage throughout major cities, the political opposition bloc has refused further dialogue with the ruling party, joining protesters' calls for the President's ouster.
Struggling to calm protests, Mr Saleh – who is accused of overseeing a corrupt regime that has failed to tackle economic grievances – has backtracked on plans to seek another term in 2013 and denied that he will try to hand power to his son. But this has failed to calm the unrest. With a population of 23 million, Yemen is the poorest and one of the youngest nations in the Middle East, creating fertile ground for protest.
The nation has also emerged as a new base for al-Qa'ida militants and leaders who have been driven out of their traditional sanctuaries on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. And there is a secessionist movement in the south, an on-off rebellion in the north and grinding poverty. Yemen's oil reserves, which make up 70 per cent of the government's revenue, are dwindling.
Regional round-up: Pearl Square monument is torn down
Thousands of Bahrainis gathered yesterday for the funeral of an activist killed in a crackdown on mainly Shia protesters in the tiny Gulf nation. Shouting "down with King Hamad", the mourners carried pictures of the slain man as they followed his flag-covered coffin.
Ahmed Farhan was one of three demonstrators killed on Wednesday when security forces – backed by troops sent from neighbouring Saudi Arabia – tried to clear protesters from the streets. Three policemen were also killed.
Meanwhile, the army demolished a 90-metre-high monument in Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, that has become a symbol of the month-long Shia uprising against the Sunni monarchy, underscoring the government's determination to quash the unrest.
King Abdullah promised $93bn (£57bn) in handouts yesterday as he moved to stave off anti-government and anti-monarchy protests that gripped other countries in the region.
The package included creating 60,000 new jobs in the security forces and building half a million homes in the oil-rich nation. There have been scattered protests in the desert kingdom, mostly in the Shia-dominated east of the country, but the rallies have been swiftly quashed by the Saudi's Sunni-dominated rulers. The handouts showed a regime still jittery about the prospect of more unrest.