SANAA (Reuters) - Protests in Yemen descended into violence on Friday in which at least five people were killed and dozens wounded as President Ali Abdullah Saleh rejected a Gulf Arab plan to secure an end to his 32 years in power.
Saleh, facing an unprecedented challenge from hundreds of thousands of protesters, initially accepted an offer by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to hold talks with the opposition.
On Wednesday, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said the GCC would strike a deal for Saleh to leave.
But on Friday, Saleh told tens of thousands of supporters in the capital Sanaa “We don’t get our legitimacy from Qatar or from anyone else ... we reject this belligerent intervention.”
Frustration with the impasse may push the thousands of Yemenis who have taken to the streets closer to violence.
Five protesters were shot dead on Friday, bringing the death toll from clashes with security forces this week to at least 26.
“I don’t think the GCC or the West want Yemen to go down the road of Libya, because that’s exactly where it’s going,” said Theodore Karasik, an analyst at the Dubai based INEGMA group.
“The more entrenched Saleh gets, the greater the outside pressure, so this could really illustrate how much influence outside powers actually have over Yemen.”
Clashes broke out in Taiz between hundreds of protesters and security forces who fired gunshots and tear gas. three protesters were shot dead and 150 others wounded by gunfire, doctors said. Some 200 were hurt by tear gas inhalation.
A doctor treating the wounded in Taiz square said 10 of the wounded were in critical condition.
In the port city of Aden, once the capital of an independent south, police fired shots to disperse thousands of protesters. Some 15,000 gathered in the Red Sea port of Hudaida to demand Saleh quit and mourn six killed in protests there on Monday.
“We’re tired of this poverty and oppression in Hudaida and all of Yemen,” said protester Abdullah Fakira. “Enough already.”
Some 40 percent of Yemen’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day and a third face chronic hunger. Poverty and exasperation with rampant corruption drove the pro-democracy protests that began over two months ago, protesters say.
Even before the protests erupted, inspired by regional uprisings, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi‘ite insurgency in the north. The violence could give al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing more room to operate.
All this adds to concern about stability in a country that sits on a shipping lane through which more than three million barrels of oil pass each day.
On Friday, local officials from Abyan, a center of militancy, told Reuters that troops were trying to retake the city of Jaar, from which they retreated two weeks ago saying they had been overpowered by militants.
Security forces surrounded Jaar with tanks and artillery and clashed with “jihadist militants” who appeared to have fled, one official said. He said troops would soon enter the city.
The United States and Yemen’s key financial backer, Saudi Arabia, both targets of attempted attacks by al Qaeda, appear ready to push aside Saleh to avoid a chaotic collapse.
Apparently trying to avoid a snub to Saleh’s main backer, a presidential aide told Reuters Saleh’s comments were not aimed at Saudi Arabia’s offer to host GCC mediated talks.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement Washington welcomed the Gulf Arab initiative.
“We strongly encourage all sides to engage in this urgently needed dialogue to reach a solution supported by the Yemeni people,” he said. “President Saleh has publicly expressed his willingness to engage in a peaceful transition of power; the timing and form of this transition should be identified through negotiation and begin soon.”
The Wall Street Journal said Washington froze its largest aid package to Yemen in February, worth $1 billion or more over several years.
Pro-democracy protesters held a “Friday of firmness” in Sanaa, shouting “You’re next, you leader of the corrupt,” as armored vehicles and security forces deployed across the city.
Some 4 km (2.5 miles) away, tens of thousands of Saleh loyalists marched, waving pictures of the president and banners that read “No to terrorism, no to sabotage.”
Around 700 riot police took up position close to General Ali Mohsen’s forces. The veteran commander defected from Saleh weeks ago, and his troops are protecting a Sanaa protest camp. He said again on Friday he would not try to take over the country, as some diplomats had suggested.
The Defense Ministry said Mohsen’s forces killed two pro-Saleh demonstrators in Sanaa. Mohsen’s forces were not immediately available for comment. A Sanaa doctor confirmed two people were killed but had no information on their attackers.
Additional reporting by Khaled al-Mahdi in Taiz and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Nick Macfie and Tim Pearce