Violence Erupts in Yemen as Protests Intensify

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Anti-government protestors carry a wounded protestor to be taken for a nearby field hospital following clashes with Yemeni police in Sanaa, Yemen, Saturday, March 12, 2011.

The Yemeni capital was rocked by fighting Saturday as the army and antigovernment protesters clashed in a battle over city streets that left two dead and hundreds injured. Facing live bullets, teargas and water cannons, a few thousand protesters hurled rocks at the soldiers, an unprecedented escalation in what began as a peaceful demonstration to bring down President Ali Abdullah Saleh after three decades of autocratic rule.

The battle lasted over six hours, as Saleh's supporters lobbed rocks from behind the soldiers at the protesters and two trucks sprayed white liquid on them, staining their clothes so police could identify them later. But the protesters held fast, and by mid-afternoon most of the soldiers were limping, some slumped on the side of the road, exhausted after a defeat in the first major battle of Yemen's creeping revolution.

Still, Saturday's clash cost protesters dearly. At a mosque in the center of the antigovernment stronghold, where a medical center had been set up, hundreds were dragged in on stretchers for trauma care before being ferried through the crowds in rickety ambulances.

Only a day before, more than 100,000 people peacefully assembled outside Sana'a University, the focus of the antigovernment protests. The mood was jovial. Women carried the national flag and children with painted faces listened to orators shout through megaphones, demanding the president step down immediately. The crowd spilled past the police line and took over city blocks and two major roads as demonstrators pitched tents to solidify their new position.

The night passed in silence as unarmed demonstrators held their ground, meters away from a line of scrawny panicked soldiers in armored vehicles. The deadlock lasted until dawn on Saturday.

Protester Sadeq al-Hijazi, his head dripping with blood from a rock wound, told TIME how the peace was broken. As is customary in Islam, the group of protesters bent down to pray before the sun rose. When the masses rose, the army pummeled them with water and teargas, trying to push them back. "We will stay here until we die," he said, standing in a puddle of water in front of a smashed-up van.

Other protesters told TIME that the army fired assault rifles, but the Ministry of the Interior promptly released a statement saying that "Riot police were not carrying live ammunition as they were under strict and clear orders not to do so." There were unconfirmed reports that irate residents in the overrun neighborhood were firing from their windows; other protesters complained of plainclothes police shooting into the crowds.

Yemen's attempts at peaceful, even festive revolution, with protesters dancing in the street and handing out water to riot police as a sign of comradeship, faded as red-eyed, tear-gassed youths urged people to the front lines, many with plastic bags full of rocks. What started as a student demonstration has now become a broader tribal movement with scores of men from the Kholan, Marib and Hamdan regions arriving in Sana'a and setting up camp — sent by their disgruntled sheikhs to help topple the regime.

Despite mounting resentment, President Saleh has ignored the growing protest as "influenza from North Africa" — where in nations like Tunisia and Egypt demonstrations fueled by youth movements have led to the swift ouster of longtime authoritarian leaders. For the third time in three months, Saleh proposed political concessions, but his plan fell short of the one demand the protesters want — for Saleh to step down — and the opposition swiftly rejected it.

Opposition leaders say Saleh still thinks he can placate with rhetoric. "It's too little, too late," Yassin Said Noman, president of the political opposition coalition, told TIME after Saleh's speech on Thursday, in which he promised to devolve more power to parliament.

The U.S., worried about the al Qaeda threat emanating from Yemen, has urged the opposition to come to the table. On Friday, Barack Obama's chief anti-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, said, "Representatives of all sectors of the Yemeni opposition should respond constructively to President Saleh's call to engage in a serious dialogue to end the current impasse." After Saturday's violence the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a released a statement saying it was "dismayed" by reports of deaths and injuries, but reiterated that "the only solution to the current political impasse is for all concerned parties to engage in a process of negotiation and dialogue."

But after the dawn assault, opposition president Noman said there was now "no hope for dialogue." The usually calm mountain city of Sana'a felt at war on Saturday. The sound of sirens echoed through the city, and clusters of youths, with scarves wrapped around their faces to prevent them inhaling stinging teargas fumes, swamped different parts of the capital. Even in some of the wealthiest areas, the occasional clack-clack-clack of AK-47 gunfire could be heard.