SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Security forces shot dead at least 12 people protesting against the rule of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the capital Sanaa Saturday and al Qaeda insurgents blew up a pipeline, halting the nation’s gas exports.
Yemeni officials said the attack on France’s Total gas pipeline was in retaliation for the killing of the head of the media department of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in an air raid on militant outposts in Yemen.
In Sanaa, security forces shot dead at least 12 demonstrators as Yemenis waited for the U.N. Security Council to agree to a resolution expected to urge Saleh to hand over power under a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) peace plan.
The death of Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian described by Yemeni officials as high on their wanted list, and 23 other people late Friday is a fresh blow to the Islamist group regarded by Washington as the most serious threat to the United States, following the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki last month.
But the destruction of the Total pipeline, which transports gas from the central Maarib province to Belhaf port on the Arabian Sea, deals a severe blow to the Yemeni economy, already reeling from months of protests.
The Yemeni Defense Ministry said its air force targeted militant hideouts near the town of Azzan in the southern Shabwa province. Residents said the attack also killed the oldest son and a cousin of U.S.-born cleric Awlaki, long sought by Washington for links to al Qaeda.
But local residents and officials said they believed the aircraft that launched at least three strikes in the area were foreign, flying at high altitude and smaller than the Soviet-made Yemeni air force planes.
“There were planes flying high. I could hear the sounds of their engines but I could not make them out,” one witness who declined to be identified, told Reuters. “All of a sudden, the area was shaken by successive explosions,” he added.
A senior U.S. official said Washington continues to work closely with Yemeni forces against al Qaeda.
“While our counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen remains strong, we continue to call upon the government in Sanaa to implement the ... proposal that calls upon President Saleh to transfer power and to initiate a peaceful political transition,” the official told Reuters.
A Yemeni official described al-Banna as a “dangerous” militant and one of the most wanted people internationally.
Witnesses said militants were seen removing several mutilated bodies as well as an unknown number of injured people from the scene early Saturday.
Last month, a drone killed Awlaki, identified by intelligence as “chief of external operations” for al Qaeda’s Yemen branch and a Web-savvy propagandist for the Islamist cause, officials said.
Awlaki relatives said the cleric’s son and cousin were due to return home Saturday. “Instead of that, we received them as mutilated corpses,” Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Awlaki said by telephone.
Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda captured large swathes of southern Abyan province, including the provincial capital Zinjibar, earlier this year.
The Yemeni army last month drove the militants out of Zinjibar, which lies east of a strategic shipping strait through which some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
Residents and officials said the 200 mile pipeline, which links gas fields in Maarib, east of Sanaa, to a $4.5 billion Total-led liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant, was attacked soon after the raids.
Sources at Total told Reuters the pipeline was blown up in two places, stopping the supplies that feed the Belhaf LNG plant. Witnesses said flames were visible from several kilometers away.
The company evacuated nearly half its foreign staff to neighboring Djibouti, and sent some local and French engineers to start repairing the pipeline.
Three South Korean companies also hold stakes in the plant, Yemen’s largest industrial project, which opened in 2009.
Yemen’s only liquefied natural gas producer, Yemen LNG, warned customers in March of potential supply curtailments as violence spread.
Yemen has the capacity to supply up to 6.7 million tons of LNG per year. Last year Yemen LNG, the 16th largest seller of the gas, shipped more than half its supplies to Asia, the rest going to the Americas and Europe.
The project delivers LNG under long term contracts to GDF Suez (GSZ.PA), Total and Korea Gas Corp (036460.KS).
In Sanaa, heavy violence broke a lull as Yemenis awaited deliberations in the U.N. Security Council aimed at pressuring Saleh to comply with a Gulf Arab initiative to hand over power to his deputy as part of a plan to end months of protests.
Witnesses and medics said Yemeni security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators trying to march toward state buildings, such as the presidential palace.
They said dozens of people were wounded and taken to a field hospital in Sixty Street, where thousands have camped out for months demanding that Saleh steps down. A Yemeni government soldier also died in the clashes, government sources said.
Witnesses said troops initially used tear gas and water cannon against the demonstrators, who responded by hurling stones at security forces.
Tareq Noman, head of the field hospital, told Al Jazeera television that his facility had received the bodies of 10 people and that hundreds were wounded. The deputy information minister, Abdu al-Janadi, said the death toll was lower.
In a separate incident, witnesses said government forces fought heavy battles with gunmen loyal to powerful tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar, who supports opposition demands for an end to Saleh’s 33-year grip on power.
They said the fighting was concentrated in the Hasaba neighborhood of Sanaa, where al-Ahmar lives, and near the airport, which was closed by the fighting.
Opposition sources said four tribal fighters were killed in the clashes.
In the southern city of Aden, a security official said gunmen on a motorcycle ambushed and killed an intelligence officer in the Arabian Sea city of al-Mukalla. The government has previously blamed other similar incidents on al Qaeda.
Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Tim Pearce/Ruth Pitchford