WORLDPOST

Yemen Protesters Test Limits As Gunfire Erupts

04/19/2011 09:17 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2011


TAIZ, Yemen (Reuters) - Yemeni police fired in the air near protesters who set up barricades of burning tires in an industrial city on Tuesday as Gulf mediators tried to bring the sides back to talks on the president handing over power.

The United Nations Security Council was also due to meet late in the day to discuss the situation in Yemen, where Western and Gulf Arab allies fear a prolonged standoff could spark clashes between rival military units in Sanaa and elsewhere.

At least one person was shot dead and another wounded at the protest in Taiz, south of Sanaa, doctors said, as protesters across the country started to test security forces' limits after three months of demonstrations demanding the overthrow of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"They (protesters) are resorting to these tactics to try and escalate the situation because they feel like their demands are not being met," said Mohammed al-Mohammedi, a student protester in Taiz.

Police responded with gunfire in Taiz when protesters set up piles of burning tires. They planned to march past the provincial governor's office.

Protesters also shouted orders to salute soldiers who belonged to a battalion loyal to General Ali Mohsen, who has sent troops to protect demonstrators in Sanaa, as they marched passed an army post staffed by his troops.

Similarly, in recent days, protesters in Sanaa and the Red Sea port of Hudeida have both tried to march outside their traditional protest zones, sparking clashes with police who sought to hold them back.

Both Western and Gulf Arab allies have tried without success to broker a resolution involving a transition of power from Saleh, who has led the Arabian Peninsula state for 32 years. He says he wants a handover, but only to "safe hands."

Western countries and Arab neighbors fear sustained clashes in the poor, mountainous country where Saleh has already lost control of several provinces would cause chaos that could benefit an active al Qaeda wing operating in Yemen.

GULF TALKS

Gulf Arab states stepped in this month with an offer to mediate after Western-brokered talks stalled, and Saleh representatives were due to meet Gulf foreign ministers in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday to try to get direct talks back on track.

The Yemeni delegation is led by Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi, an internationally respected diplomat, and also includes Abdel-Karim el-Eryani, a former prime minister and foreign minister popular with Washington.

The Abu Dhabi meeting comes two days after a delegation of Saleh's opponents, who had initially rejected Gulf-led talks because they had not set a departure timeframe for Saleh, met Gulf ministers in Riyadh to lay out their objections.

"We have great hopes that the Abu Dhabi meeting will extract a clear commitment for Saleh to leave. We are not currently planning to march on the palace but we will escalate protests with a comprehensive civil strike," said Meshaal Mujahid, a protest organizer in Sanaa.

Saleh, who has accepted Gulf mediation, has warned of civil war and the break-up of the country if he is forced out. More than 117 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces since late January.

The opposition insists that Saleh stepping down is not negotiable, but other sensitive matters like granting him immunity from prosecution would not prove stumbling blocks to a deal.

The United Nations Security Council was also planning to discuss the situation in Yemen on Tuesday at 1930 GMT, diplomats said, in a meeting that would include a briefing by a senior official from the U.N. Department of Political Affairs.

The Security Council might issue a statement after the meeting is over, diplomats said.
Saleh, meanwhile, continued to see former supporters desert him as some members of his ruling party formed a new bloc on Monday to back protests against the rule. The members include the former tourism, human rights and transport ministers.

After initially offering to leave after his current term ends in 2013, Saleh subsequently said he would step down after holding elections, possibly this year.

Even before the start of the protests, inspired by the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and cement a truce with Shi'ite Muslim rebels in the north.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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