msnbc.com news services
updated 3/18/2011 9:03:47 PM ET 2011-03-19T01:03:47

A massive demonstration against Yemen's government turned into a killing field Friday as snipers on rooftops fired down on protesters and police made a wall of fire with tires and gasoline, blocking a key escape route.

At least 46 people died, including some children, in an attack that marked a new level of brutality in President Ali Abdullah Saleh's crackdown on dissent. Medical officials and witnesses said hundreds were wounded.

Saleh, struggling to maintain his 32-year grip on power in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, said the deaths had occurred in clashes between demonstrators and other citizens at a protest encampment at Sanaa University.

"I express my extreme sorrow for what happened today after Friday prayers in the university district," Saleh told a news conference in Sanaa, blaming gunmen among the protesters for the violence.

"The police were not present and did not open fire," he said. "It is clear there are armed elements inside these tents and they are the ones who opened fire."

The dramatic escalation in violence suggested Saleh was growing more fearful that the unprecedented street protests over the past month could unravel his grip on power. The United States, which has long relied on Saleh for help fighting terrorism, condemned the violence.

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The bloodshed, however, failed to dislodge protesters from a large traffic circle they have dubbed "Taghyir Square" — Arabic for "Change." Hours after the shooting, thousands demanding Saleh's ouster stood their ground, many of them hurling stones at security troops and braving live fire and tear gas.

They stormed several buildings where the snipers had taken position, dragging out 10 people — including some the protesters claimed were paid thugs. They said the men would be handed over to judicial authorities.

The protest in the capital, Sanaa, drew tens of thousands, the largest crowd yet in Yemen's uprising. It began peacefully. A military helicopter flew low over the square just as protesters were arriving after the main Muslim prayer services of the week.

Slideshow: Political unrest in Yemen (on this page)

A short while later, gunfire rang out from rooftops and houses, sending the crowd into a panic. Dozens were hit and crumpled to the ground. One man ran for help cradling a young boy shot in the head.

Many of the victims were shot in the head and neck, their bodies left sprawled on the ground or carried off by other protesters desperately pressing scarves to wounds to try to stop the bleeding.

Police used burning tires and gasoline to block demonstrators from fleeing down a main road leading to sensitive locations, including the president's residence.

"It is a massacre," said Mohammad al-Sabri, an opposition spokesman. "This is part of a criminal plan to kill off the protesters, and the president and his relatives are responsible for the bloodshed in Yemen today."

Image: A medic helps an injured anti-government protester in Sanaa
Khaled Abdullah  /  Reuters
A medic helps an injured anti-government protester in Sanaa on Friday. Doctors confirmed that of the dead, at least three were children.

Witnesses said the snipers wore the beige uniforms of Yemen's elite forces and that others were plainclothes security officers. President Saleh denied at a press conference that government forces were involved, claiming that residents angry over the expanding protest camp had opened fire. He ordered the formation of a committee to investigate.

Doctors at a makeshift field hospital near the protest camp at Sanaa University confirmed at least 46 dead, three of them children. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

A Yemeni photojournalist, Jamal al-Sharaabi, was among the dead, medical officials said. He is the first journalist killed in the unrest.

Interior Minister Gen. Mouthar al-Masri, who is in charge of internal security forces, put the number of dead at 25 and the injured at 200.

Opposition groups in Yemen held an emergency meeting later Friday in which they defiantly called on all Yemenis to join in their peaceful protest. The groups denounced Friday's violence, which they said was ordered by Saleh. They also called on the international community and U.N. Security Council to take "political and moral responsibility with measures to protect civilians."

The United States, which supports Yemen's government with $250 million in military aid this year alone to battle one of al-Qaida's most active franchises, condemned the attack on protesters.

"Those responsible for today's violence must be held accountable," President Barack Obama said. He called on Saleh to adhere to his public pledge to allow peaceful demonstrations.

Instead, Saleh declared a 30-day nationwide state of emergency that formally gave his security forces a freer hand to confront demonstrators. The declaration bars citizens from carrying and using weapons.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "deeply troubled," said his spokesman, Martin Nesirky. He "reiterates his call for utmost restraint and reminds the government of Yemen that it has an obligation to protect civilians."

Demonstrators are demanding jobs, greater political freedoms and an end to government corruption.

In the latest defection by a political ally of the president, Nabil al-Faqih, the Yemeni tourism minister, resigned Friday from his Cabinet position and from the ruling party to protest the killings.

"This is the least I can do," he said. Al-Faqih is the second minister to quit and the latest of several politicians to resign from Saleh's Congress Party.

Throughout the unrest, security forces and government supporters have used live fire, rubber bullets, tear gas, sticks, knives and rocks against the protesters, who have only grown in number in Sanaa and in many other cities around the nation. The protesters say they won't go until Saleh does and have rejected offers to discuss a unity government.

"They want to scare and terrorize us. They want to drag us into a cycle of violence — to make the revolution meaningless," said Jamal Anaam, a 40-year-old activist camping out in the protest site.

He said government opponents would not follow the example of their counterparts in Libya who took up arms against Col. Moammar Gadhafi. "They want to repeat the Libyan experiment, but we refuse to be dragged into violence no matter what the price," he said.

Friday's violence showed the government of Saleh and his family are increasingly worried about losing power, said Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University.

"He has been in power for more than three decades and he's falling back on what he knows best, which is increasingly violent methods."

The tactic is unlikely to work, he predicted.

"Yemen does not have a population that's easily cowed, so I don't think they will be put out by fear of death," he said. "It's a heavily armed country. Many of the people there are quite confident and capable of putting security into their own hands."

Saleh and his weak government have faced down many serious challenges, often forging tricky alliances with restive tribes to delicately extend power beyond the capital. Most recently, he has battled an on-and-off, seven-year armed rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and an al-Qaida offshoot that is of great concern to the U.S.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which formed in January 2009, has moved beyond regional aims and attacked the West, including sending a suicide bomber who came terrifyingly close to blowing up a U.S.-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear. The device failed to detonate properly.

Yemen is also home to U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have offered inspiration to those attacking the U.S.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: As unrest spreads, Saudis hope money will buy peace

  1. Closed captioning of: As unrest spreads, Saudis hope money will buy peace

    >>> now we shift to the middle east where as we mention governments are cracking down on protesters really without mercy. most notably tonight in both yemen and bahrain . our chief foreign correspondent, richard engel , has made his way back to cairo tonight. he has more on the renewed violence against these uprisings throughout the region. of course two things happen. the attention focused elsewhere shifted away and some of it died down, but here we go again.

    >> reporter: the arab revolts are once again gaining momentum and libya is not the only regime that is fighting for its survival. today both bahrain and yemen , both american allies, are taking a very hard line. and a warning, some of these images are graphic. the victims in yemen were rushed to makeshift infirmaries and chaotic hospitals. many were bloody, some motionless. witnesses say dozens of people were killed when tens of thousands of protesters were shot at by snipers. the protesters want to remove yemen 's president of 32 years, a u.s. ally in the fight against al qaeda . tonight saleh announced a state of emergency . he blamed the protesters for the crackdown and denied his police fired a single shot . he claimed armed yemeni citizens attacked the demonstrators because they were being disruptive. arab leaders are seeing that despite international pressure and media attention, old-fashioned force still works to stop rebellions. in bahrain , a bloody crackdown has been under way for days, with scenes like this. watch the man in red. first he's shot with what appears to be a rubber bullet . he falls, but stands up, clutching his chest. only to be shot again point blank in the head. in the capital today, the government bull dozed pearl square, bahrain 's version of egypt's famous tahrir square. as if by knocking down the rallying point for protests, the demonstrators would just go home. in neighboring saudi arabia today, a different approach. money for peace. there were celebrations as king abdullah raised the minimum wage, created 60,000 new jobs and pumped $4 billion into health care . to stop revolts once again gaining momentum, arab regimes are trying to buy off the opposition or crush it. the crackdowns in yemen and bahrain are particularly embarrassing, brian, to the united states since the united states has a great deal of influence in both of those countries, yet the violence continues. brian.

    >> so much in motion in that region once again. richard engel back on his post in cairo. richard, thank you.

Photos: July

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  1. A man prepares the grave of Hassan al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa, July 19. Fighting between government forces and opposition supporters erupted in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Monday, killing six people, among them al-Hora, opposition sources said. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, July 19. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl has ''will not leave'' written on her face during a rally to support Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa July 17. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Anti-government protestors shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, July 13. (Mohammed Hamoud / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An anti-government protester writes slogans on a wall using his own blood during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at Tagheer square in Sanaa on July 13. The words read "In my blood I protect Yemen." (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Girls light candles as they attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz July 9. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Yemeni anti-government protester displays bullets allegedly fired by supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration demanding Saleh’s ousting, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 8. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sit on stone pillars during a rally in support of President Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen, on July 8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged rallies around his vacant palace Friday after their leader's first TV appearance since being injured in a blast last month and leaving for treatment in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammed Al-Sayaghi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A supporter of Saleh kisses his picture as his supporters celebrate in Sanaa on July 7 after he appeared on television for the first time since he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saleh delivers a speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 7, making his first public appearance since he was wounded in an attack on his palace in Sanaa in June. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anti-government protesters join their hands and shout slogans demanding an end to the 32-year regime of President Saleh, in Sanaa on July 6. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A police vehicle is set ablaze during clashes between armed followers of the opposition and police in the southern city of Taiz on July 6. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A relative of victims of recent clashes talks to a member of the United Nations human rights investigation team, left, in Sanaa on July 5. The U.N. team arrived in Yemen last week to assess the situation in the country after months of unrest. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women recite prayers during a rally to demand the ouster of President Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on July 1. Tens of thousands of Yemenis turned Friday prayers into rallies for and against Saleh, who is recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt in June. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  2. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  3. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  4. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  5. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos
  6. YEMEN
    Karim Ben Khelifa
    Slideshow (20) Yemen in the spotlight

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