Yemeni security forces fired live bullets and tear gas on two pro-democracy demonstrations today, killing two people - including a 15-year-old student - as the government clamps down on a growing protest movement, witnesses said.
The violence began with a pre-dawn raid on a central square in the capital, Sanaa, where thousands of pro-democracy protesters have been camped out for the past month to demand the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years.
Doctors and eyewitnesses said security troops surrounded the square with police cars and armoured personnel carriers shortly after midnight and began calling on protesters through loudspeakers to go home. At 5am security forces stormed in, firing tear gas and live ammunition.
One protester died from a bullet to the head, which may have come from a sniper on the rooftop of a nearby building, witnesses said. Abdelwahed al-Juneid, a volunteer doctor working with the protesters, said around 250 people were wounded.
"We were performing dawn prayers when we were surprised by a sudden hail of bullets and tear gas," said Walid Hassan, a 25-year-old activist. "The protesters began throwing rocks at security... it was total mayhem, a real battlefield."
In the port city of Mukalla in the south-eastern province of Hadramout, a 15-year-old was shot dead when security troops opened fire on protesters. Twelve people were wounded in similar violence in Yemen's southern province of Taiz.
Yemen's president appeared to be one of the Arab leaders most threatened by the regional unrest inspired by pro-democracy revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrators are demanding jobs and greater political freedoms. Saleh has tried to calm protesters by proposing that the government create a new constitution guaranteeing the independence of parliament and the judiciary - but protesters have said it's too little, too late.
Today's raid on the Sanaa square came after Yemen's largest demonstrations in a month on Friday were met by police gunfire that injured at least six protesters and seemed certain to fuel more anger against the deeply unpopular president.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Yemen's four largest provinces, ripping down and burning Saleh's portraits in Sheikh Othman, the most populated district in the southern port city of Aden, witnesses said. In the capital, thousands of women participated in demonstrations - a startling move in a deeply tribal society where women are expected to stay out of sight.
By Friday evening, protesters in Sanaa had expanded the area of their sit-in encampment, further angering authorities and leading to clashes with plainclothes security men. Protesters said the men were carrying sticks, knives and iron rods. Four protesters were injured, witnesses said.
Yemen was chaotic even before the demonstrations began, with a resurgent al-Qaida, a separatist movement in the south and a sporadic Shiite rebellion in the north vexing the government, which has little control outside major urban areas.