Tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets yesterday for what organizers have called the "Friday of Decisiveness,” days after Yemeni forces opened fire on demonstrators. The death toll from weeks of protests has surpassed 160. The violence comes as Qatar has pulled out of international talks on a deal that would see Saleh voluntarily resign. We are joined on the phone by Iona Craig, a Times of London correspondent based in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.
Protests after Friday prayers are underway now in Yemen, Syria and Egypt. Tens of thousands of people have gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where Al Jazeera reports the demonstration is a show of support for the Palestinian unity deal between Fatah and Hamas. It is also being held as a show of religious unity after Muslim-Christian clashes left 12 dead last weekend.
In Syria, there are protests of thousands in several southern cities, and gunshots have been heard at the demonstration in Damascus.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, marchers have gathered in several cities after Friday prayers. At the same time, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has just made a televised address in which he accused his political opponents of playing with fire and said he would defend himself by all means.
The prospects of a peaceful resolution to the uprising against Saleh appear to be fading, amidst the mounting repression of anti-government protesters. On Thursday, Yemeni forces opened fire at demonstrators in the city of Al Bayda, killing two and wounding seven others. Dozens were also injured when government forces shot protesters in the city of Taiz. The violence came one day after at least 10 people were killed in another round of government attacks. A witness described the shootings of demonstrators in the capital Sana’a.
WITNESS:[translated] So many people were hit by bullets. So many people are killed everywhere. So many people are killed. This regime doesn’t know mercy. I call on a revolution that destroys this regime. I call on an awakening of the people to destroy this regime and this killer, Saleh, who killed our martyrs.
The death toll from weeks of protests has surpassed 160. Tens of thousands of Yemenis have taken to the streets today for what organizers have called the "Friday of Decisiveness."
The violence comes as Qatar has pulled out of international talks on a deal that would see Saleh voluntary resign. The proposal calls for Saleh’s departure within 30 days in return for receiving immunity for himself and members of his regime. But Saleh has refused to leave the country to sign the deal in Saudi Arabia. Qatar played a leading role in negotiating the deal, and its withdrawal is a major signal that a negotiated solution is out of reach.
For more on Yemen, we go to Sana’a to Iona Craig. She’s with The Times of London, and she is based in the Yemeni capital.
The President, Saleh, has just given a speech. What did he say, Iona?
Well, he was not only defiant, but also threatening. He called his opponents saboteurs and said that he will defend them with all means necessary. In the last few days, we’ve been witnessing all around the country many more instances of live ammunition being used against protesters. And indeed, I was with demonstrators late on Wednesday evening when soldiers opened fire and killed at least 13 people in the capital. I was alongside protesters as they ran from that gunfire, and even those soldiers that weren’t armed beat down protesters as they were fleeing from the gunfire.
It seems the patience is running out of both the President and the protesters, who have announced that they’re now going to escalate their campaign by increasing their tented sit-ins and by marching from their tented sit-ins. And there’s been a proposal that they will march to the presidential palace here in Sana’a next week. And I think if that happens, we could see very bloody scenes here in the capital.
And Iona Craig, is all of the repression coming from the military? Because there had been some generals who had broken with Saleh. Or are there also irregular forces or paramilitary forces involved, as well?
Well, most of the shooting that’s been happening up until probably the last couple of weeks had always—nearly always—involved plainclothes gunmen. The protesters generally believe that these were soldiers in civilian clothing. The army have been used directly down in Aden, down in the south, which is a slightly different situation, because they’re regarded by the government as separatists, wanting to break away from Yemen. But here, in the last few weeks, and certainly in Taiz and in Ibb, we’ve now seen soldiers opening fire, in uniform. And certainly in the last few days, it’s been very blatant, not just one or two soldiers shooting in the air or not just the snipers that we’ve seen before on rooftops who have been difficult to identify. These have been uniformed soldiers marching through the streets and also using .50 caliber machine guns on the back of pickup trucks.
As you mentioned, the army is divided. There were clashes following Wednesday night’s attack between those two sides of the army. The First Armored Division, who defected along with their commander in the middle of March, have been protecting the protesters here in Sana’a. But they haven’t been going with them when they’ve been marching, to avoid clashing with the Central Security Forces. But it was forced upon them on Wednesday night, because the attack was very close to the tented sit-in in Sana’a. And after the soldiers opened fire, the rebel soldiers on the other side also clashed with them for several hours with a firefight in the west of the capital.
There have also been reports of sabotage of gas lines and electrical lines. Has this—any credence to these reports?
No, these are absolutely correct. The economic problem is also huge here now as a result. There have been mass power cuts here and in other cities as a result of that. Oil pipelines have been destroyed, halting the production of oil across the country. The electricity power lines have also been destroyed in protest against Saleh. And there is also a gas shortage, a cooking gas shortage here in the capital because roads have been blocked. This all adds to the problems that were already existing. There is now a diesel shortage, a gas cooking shortage and regular power cuts. So this is—it’s all coming to a head at the moment, it seems to be, along with this increasing violence and the underlying problem of an economic collapse.
Iona Craig, the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, has this grim report which quotes the Yemeni oil minister as saying economic collapse is "imminent." The report says, "Yemen’s oil production has been halved in recent weeks after producers pulled out their staff and halted output, which led to the closure of the country’s sole refinery in Aden." That report from The Guardian. Your response?
Yes, that’s absolutely correct. The director of the Aden refinery, in fact, has approached the government asking for funding to import oil, because now the production, in some reports—some reports are saying, has been completely halted out of the regions of [inaudible] and Marib. This obviously means that the diesel we’re now getting in Sana’a, much of it is coming from Saudi Arabia. And obviously, there isn’t the funding to be paying for that with the government at the moment. Oil production accounts for a significant percentage of GDP here and is also responsible for paying the wages of civil servants and, even more crucially, the army as well. So, yes, the economic collapse is very real. And as this uprising drags on, it’s set to get a lot worse.
Our biggest wall at the moment is probably Ramadan, which is in August. It’s always a time when the economy suffers anyway and normally relies on a boost, a financial boost, from Saudi Arabia. If Saudi Arabia refuses to give that boost this time around, I think this will undoubtedly force the hand of Saleh, when he runs out of money to the point when he can’t even pay his own soldiers.
Human Rights Watch says negotiators should immediately remove a promise of immunity from any resignation deal for President Saleh, in light of repeated lethal attacks by his security forces on peaceful protesters. What do you and what do people in the streets have to say about this, this promise of immunity?
This is one of the main sticking points for the protesters here. They have officially rejected the GCC deal that you’re talking about, on the grounds of the clause of immunity for—not only for Saleh, it’s also for his family members, many of whom run the elite military units here, but also along this now, the [inaudible] that he has even added to, of his aides and people who have worked in the government. So, the protesters here are quite determined that he should—should be prosecuted and should be investigated. And, of course, the more people that die, the more that they insist upon this. So even if this GCC deal does happen, which is looking increasingly unlikely, the aim of the deal was to resolve the crisis, the crisis being the protesters on the streets. But if the protesters are rejecting the deal, then it’s not going to end the current uprising that we’re seeing.
And Iona Craig, the role of the United States—clearly, President Saleh is a major ally, has been, of the United States, and we haven’t seen the kind of public criticism here from the White House that we saw even in the popular uprising in Egypt or in Libya or Syria. Your sense of how American officials are acting at this time?
I think they, along with the E.U., are really trying to push forward this GCC plan. They’re really relying on it heavily. Diplomats that I’ve spoken to have said there are no other plans beyond that. So if this GCC deal fails, then the situation will be left to the protesters on the streets.
So, at the moment, there’s obviously the underlying fear, as you mentioned, of al-Qaeda. President Saleh has also used al-Qaeda as a means to whip up fear amongst his Western sponsors in order to try and get their support. He’s also recently claimed that the protesters are in league with al-Qaeda, or indeed that al-Qaeda has infiltrated the protest camps, to increase these feelings of fears amongst the West, in hope that perhaps they will continue to support him.
But much relies upon this GCC bill, which has stretched on now through negotiations since the middle of March, and he has actually sidestepped from signing over two weeks ago. There’s another meeting that is due to be held here in Sana’a tomorrow. What will come of that remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that it will come out with a signing of the deal by both sides.
Iona Craig, I want to thank you for being with us from the capital of Yemen, Sana’a. Iona Craig is with The Times of London.