Armed Yemeni government supporters break up protest

SANAA Sat Feb 12, 2011 12:52pm EST

1 of 2. Pro-government protesters confront with anti-government protesters near Tahrir Square in Sanaa February 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

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SANAA (Reuters) - Government supporters armed with traditional knives and batons broke up a pro-democracy march on Saturday by 2,000 Yemenis inspired by the Egyptian uprising.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, trying to ward off protests spreading across the Arab world, has promised to step down when his term ends in 2013, but the opposition has yet to respond to his call to join a unity government. The opposition wants talks to take place under Western or Gulf Arab auspices.

As well as sporadic protests, the Arabian Peninsula state is also struggling with a secessionist movement in the south, a shaky ceasefire with Shi'ite rebels in the north and a resurgent al Qaeda presence, all against a backdrop of chronic poverty.

Some 300 anti-government student demonstrators assembled at Sanaa University on Saturday morning. As numbers swelled into the thousands, they began marching toward the Egyptian embassy.

"The people want the fall of the government," protesters chanted. "A Yemeni revolution after the Egyptian revolution."

But a group of government supporters armed with knives and sticks confronted the protesters at the central Tahrir Square. Scuffles broke out and the pro-government activists used traditional knives and batons to force the anti-government protesters to flee.

Two people were lightly injured, witnesses said.

The clash came after armed men forced around 300 anti-government protesters to quit an impromptu demonstration in the Yemeni capital on Friday night.

Yemeni authorities detained at least 10 people after anti-government protesters in Sanaa celebrated Mubarak's downfall on Friday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said.

The group said the celebrations turned to clashes when hundreds of men armed with assault rifles, knives and sticks attacked the protesters while security forces stood by.

"The Yemeni security forces have a duty to protect peaceful protesters," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "In this case, security forces seem to have organized armed men to attack the protesters."

Yemen's ruling party set up tents in Sanaa's central Tahrir Square last week to occupy the space and prevent people from gathering in large numbers.

Party officials handed out small amounts of money to reward pro-government protesters on Saturday. Some used the cash to buy food or Qat, a mild green stimulant leaf that more than half of Yemen's 23 million people chew daily and which has been cited as a deterrent to protest.

On Saturday, Yemen said it respected the choice of the Egyptian people and would support them in their search for progress and development.

(Reporting by Mohamed Sudam, Mohammed Ghobari and Khaled Abdallah; Writing by Martina Fuchs; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jon Hemming)

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