Police have opened fire on protesters during clashes in a southern Yemeni port, killing two people, in the first known deaths in six days of Egypt-style demonstrations across the country’s biggest cities.
Protesters are demanding the removal of the president, a key US ally in battling al Qaida.
Around 2,000 police flooded the streets of the capital, Sanaa, on Wednesday in an attempt to halt the protests. Firing in the air, police locked the gates of Sanaa University with chains to prevent thousands of protesting students inside from marching out join crowds demonstrating elsewhere in the city, witnesses said.
A call spread via Facebook and Twitter urging Yemenis to join a series of One Million People rallies on a so-called Friday of Rage in all Yemeni cities, demanding the removal of president Ali Abdullah Saleh who has been in power for 32 years.
“We will remain in the streets until the regime’s departure,” according to a statement posted on Facebook. Copies signed by a group named the February 24 Movement were distributed among youth via email. The group is taking that name because organisers hope to have their biggest protest on that day next week.
Taking inspiration from the toppling of autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, the protesters are demanding political reforms and Saleh’s resignation, complaining of poverty, unemployment and corruption in the Arab world’s most impoverished nation.
Saleh has tried to defuse protesters’ anger amid the unprecedented street demonstrations by saying he will not run for another term in 2013 and that he will not seek to set up his son, Ahmed, to succeed him in the conflict-ridden and poor nation.
Saleh has become a key US partner in battling al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s offshoot in Yemen.
The group’s several hundred fighters have battled Saleh’s US-backed forces and have been linked to attacks beyond Yemen’s borders, including the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009.
Yemeni state TV reported that Saleh has been holding meetings since Sunday with heads of tribes to prevent them from joining the anti-government protests. On Wednesday he met with the Supreme Defence Council to discuss developments in the country.