SANAA (Reuters) - Scattered clashes broke out across Yemen on Monday, with three soldiers killed in the north, as military forces were deployed to check nationwide protests demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The impoverished Arabian Peninsula state has been rocked by weeks of demonstrations that have undermined Saleh’s 32-year grip on power, with both pro- and anti-government supporters appearing to resort increasingly to violence in the struggle.
Seven demonstrators and three soldiers have died in clashes since Saturday, raising the death toll from unrest above 30.
The United States, which has long seen Saleh as a bulwark against a dynamic al Qaeda wing based in Yemen, has condemned the bloodshed and backed the right for peaceful protest, but has insisted only dialogue can end the political crisis.
Two soldiers and an officer were killed as clashes broke out in the northern al-Jawf province, which borders oil giant Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s state news agency Saba said.
Fighting intensified after protesters stormed a municipal building. Security forces fired on them, wounding 10, but could not stop them seizing the building, a local official said.
In the central Maarib province, where several oil and gas fields operated by international companies are located, a blast damaged an oil pipeline late on Monday, a tribal official said.
The pipeline has been repeatedly blown up. Disgruntled tribesmen and al Qaeda militants have been suspected of carrying out the attacks.
Earlier a man stabbed Maarib’s governor, critically wounding him as he and police tried to break up a crowd at a sit-in. A local official blamed the attack on an opposition supporter.
In the province of Shabwa, an official at Austrian oil firm OMV said the company had suspended its transports of crude by trucks from an oil field to the pumping station of a pipeline because of the unrest.
“The suspension is temporary and due to the current security instability,” the official told Reuters, without saying how much oil was carried by trucks and what portion of it was for export.
Yemen is a small oil producer pumping about 300,000 barrels per day of crude.
As tensions in Yemen rose, three journalists and a researcher from Britain and the United States were abruptly deported on Monday. An airport official said they had all entered on tourist visas and were not entitled to work there.
Saleh has made promised to step down in 2013 and offered a new constitution giving more powers to parliament, but he has refused his critics’ main demand to quit immediately.
Soldiers and armored vehicles tried to cut off an area in the capital, where around 20,000 have held a sit-in for weeks.
“We’re expecting an attack at any minute, but we’re not leaving until the regime falls, “ said protester Taha Qayed.
Crowds chanted: “Leave, leave you murderer.”
Police fired in the air to try to break up tens of thousands of protesters in Taiz, 200 km (125 miles) south of the capital Sanaa. Three were hurt, but protesters continued demonstrating.
A string of Saleh’s allies have recently defected to the protesters, who are frustrated by rampant corruption and soaring unemployment. Some 40 percent of the population live on $2 a day or less in Yemen, and a third face chronic hunger.
Activists said the former religious endowments minister, sacked a day earlier, joined protests in Sanaa on Monday.
“We call on all ministers and all noble people to resign and join the revolution in Sanaa,” leading activist Mohammed al-Sharfi told Reuters.
Thousands were also protesting in al-Hawta, the regional capital of southern Lahej province, residents said.
“Al-Hawta is in a state of paralysis. The opposition has called for a general strike to protest at the repression of demonstrators,” a resident told Reuters by phone.
Popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia have inspired this latest wave of unrest in Yemen, but the country was already seething with intermittent rebellions in the north and south.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Ralph Boulton