SANAA/ADEN Victims' families boycotted the start of the trial in Sanaa on Saturday of 78 people accused of killing 53 protesters at a rally demanding that the Yemeni president stand down, a lawyer for the families said.
Only 27 defendants were in court for the closed session, none of the leading suspects were present, and the victims' relatives were boycotting the trial because they believed it was "laundering" the shootings, lawyer Abdul Rahman Berman told Reuters.
Hours before the trial began, the Yemeni embassy in Washington issued a statement saying that al Qaeda militants were stepping up their military operations in the south of the country, taking advantage of the lack of security.
The 53 protesters were shot by snipers at a sit-in at Sanaa University after Friday prayers on March 18 in one of the bloodiest incidents in the capital this year. The crowd were demanding that Ali Abdullah Saleh, president for 33 years, stand down.
Berman said the interior ministry had facilitated the killings by withdrawing security personnel protecting the site of the sit-in.
The killings prompted Saleh to declare a state of emergency.
The widespread demonstrations in Yemen were inspired by the "Arab Spring" uprisings in other parts of the Arab world by citizens wanting to replace autocratic rulers with democratic governments and the rule of law.
"The court held a closed session where they (the defendants) were accused of killing the protesters, 27 attended the prosecution in the courtroom while the rest were prosecuted in absentia," Berman said.
"The main suspects and planners were not brought in and were not investigated," he said, adding that victims' families had also demanded that the head and staff of central security and the commander of the special forces also be investigated.
Two weeks before the March 18 shootings, the opposition had presented Saleh with a plan for a smooth transition of power, offering him a graceful exit. Saleh said he would draw up a new constitution to create a parliamentary system of government, but an opposition spokesman rejected the proposal.
Saleh appeared on Yemeni television on Thursday for the first time since he flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after a June 3 assassination attempt and raid on his presidential compound.
He had severe burns on his face and was visibly weaker but showed he was determined to hang on to power despite international pressure to quit and six months of protests against his rule.
In other developments, a general and a soldier were killed in an ambush in the southern province of Dalea and three soldiers were wounded, a military official said.
The website of the September 26 newspaper reported that security forces arrested five people accused of the attack.
Separately, a government official told Reuters that gunmen believed to be al Qaeda members had prevented teams from the International Committee of the Red Cross from entering the city of Zinjibar to recover the dead and wounded after fighting there last month.
The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Yemeni forces might have killed dozens of civilians in unlawful attacks while fighting an Islamist armed group in the southern province of Abyan since May 2011.
Militants have seized two cities in Abyan in recent months, including its capital, Zinjibar. Some 54,000 Yemenis have fled Abyan since then, a government official said last week.
Late on Friday, Yemen's embassy in Washington said militants of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had expanded their military operations in Abyan and were "taking advantage of the fluid situation in the country."
AQAP claimed responsibility for a failed Christmas Day attack in 2009 aboard a U.S. airliner and an attempt in October 2010 to blow up two U.S.-bound cargo planes with explosive parcels.
The growing strength of al Qaeda in Yemen, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia and sits beside sea lanes used by tankers carrying huge quantities of oil, has caused great concern in both the Gulf and the West.
(Writing by Martina Fuchs; Editing by Tim Pearce)