Image: Anti-government protesters in Sanaa, Yemen
Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP
Anti-government protesters hold up a poster showing a demonstrator who was wounded in clashes with Yemeni forces and died Sunday. Protesters are rallying to demand the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/4/2011 3:32:44 PM ET 2011-04-04T19:32:44

Security forces and plainclothes gunmen opened fire on crowds of Yemenis marching through a southern city Monday, killing at least 15 and wounding dozens, in an intensifying crackdown against the uprising against the 32-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Witnesses described troops and gunmen, some on nearby rooftops, firing wildly on thousands of protesters who marched past the governor's headquarters in Taiz in the second straight day of violence in the southern city. Some — including elderly people — were trampled and injured as the crowds tried to flee, witnesses said.

Violence has swelled in recent days amid frustration over behind-the-scenes efforts to convince Saleh to step down in the face of a nearly two-month-old uprising. The United States and European countries have been contacting Saleh and his opponents, trying to find a formula for the president to leave his post with a stable transfer of power, an opposition spokesman said.

Monday afternoon, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the latest violence in Yemen "appalling."

The New York Times on Monday said Washington had "quietly shifted positions" and "concluded that [Saleh] is unlikely to bring about the required reforms and must be eased out of office."

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Speaking at his daily briefing, Toner sought to play down the New York Times report. Asked if the United States believed Saleh must go, Toner replied: "That's not necessarily a decision for us to make." He said the United States was talking to the government and the opposition in the hope of achieving "a peaceful solution.''

Saleh has been a key ally of the United States, which has given him millions in counterterrorism aid to fight al-Qaida's branch in the country, which has plotted attacks on American soil. So far, Washington has not publicly demanded that he step down, but the diplomatic effort was a clear sign that the Americans have decided the danger of turmoil and instability outweighs the risks if Saleh leaves.

Mustafa al-Sabri, a spokesman for a coalition of opposition parties, said U.S. and European diplomats who had been in contacts with Saleh had asked the opposition for their "vision" for a transition. In response, the opposition over the weekend gave the Americans a proposal that Saleh step down and hand his powers to his vice president, who would then organize a process for rewriting the constitution and holding new elections, al-Sabri said.

But the 65-year-old president has dug in against the idea.

On Sunday, Saleh took a tough line, saying no negotiations could be held without a "halt to all protests and the mutiny by some units in the military."

"We are prepared to explore the peaceful transfer of authority in the framework of the constitution. But arm-twisting will absolutely not work," he said.

Harsh crackdown
The U.S. Embassy has not commented on its efforts, saying only in a statement over the weekend that "Saleh has publicly expressed his willingness to engage in a peaceful transition of power; the timing and form of this transition should be identified through dialogue and negotiation."

A diplomat in Sanaa said on Monday the focus for now was still on talks, and that public calls to stand down — which have only so far come from France — were premature.

"It depends on developments in the coming days. This is one of the options that all capitals have if they want," he said.

"At the moment, diplomatic parties are working behind the scenes to encourage an agreement on political transition between Yemeni parties. Other options are being kept at the moment in the drawer," the diplomat said.

If Washington were to call on Saleh to go, "I'm not sure if he (Saleh) would immediately cave in," he added.

Saleh has managed to cling to power even after many of his top allies in the government and military abandoned him and joined the opposition because of the harshness of his crackdown on the protesters. The opposition has been holding continual protest camps in main squares of the capital Sanaa and other cities around the country, and hundreds of thousands turned out for the biggest and most widespread marches yet on Friday. At least 97 people have been killed since demonstrations began Feb. 11.

Image: Map of Yemen
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The violence in the mountain city of Taiz began when thousands of protesters marched down its main street toward Freedom Square, where demonstrators have been camped out surrounded by security forces.

As the march passed the governor's headquarters, troops stationed there blocked the procession, and clashes broke out, with some protesters throwing stones, witnesses said.

Troops on nearby rooftops opened fire with live ammunition on the crowd and the marchers then turned to besiege the governor's headquarters, said Bushra al-Maqtara, an opposition activist in Taiz, and other witnesses.

"It was heavy gunfire from all directions. Some were firing from the rooftop of the governor's building," said one man in the crowd, Omar al-Saqqaf. He said he saw military police load the bodies of two slain protesters into a car and then speed away.

The military has clamped down on the city of nearly half a million, about 120 miles south of the capital, Sanaa. For a second day, tanks and armored vehicles blocked entrances to the city to prevent outsiders from joining the protests. They also surrounded Freedom Square, bottling up the thousands in the protest camp there and arresting anyone who tries to exit.

Saleh's top security official in Taiz, Abdullah Qiran, to oversee security in Taiz, is accused by demonstrators of orchestrating some of the most brutal crackdowns against demonstrators, particularly in the southern port town of Aden, where he was previously stationed until his transfer several weeks ago. On Sunday, police attacked a march by thousands of women in Taiz, sparking a battle with a separate group of male protesters.

Marches in solidarity with the Taiz protesters erupted in the cities of Mukalla, in the east, and Hodeida, on Yemen's western Red Sea coast. In Hodeida, protesters tried to march on a presidential palace in the city but were blocked by security forces, who opened fire with tear gas and live ammunition, said activist Abdel-Hafiz al-Abbasi.

He said three people were wounded.

Nothing but 'immediate departure'
Protesters massed in a Sanaa square they have renamed Taghyir, or Change, Square, said they too would hold a march Monday in support of Taiz. At the same time, pro-government gunmen in civilian clothes were seen taking up positions on a man boulevard in the capital, raising worries of a new confrontation.

Over the crisis, Saleh has offered to step down in 2013, when his term ends, or as early as the end of this year — if a transfer of power acceptable to him is reached. The opposition fears that Saleh is using the discussions over stepping down to stall for time — either to stay in power or to ensure he is succeeded by one of his sons, a prospect the opposition has staunchly rejected.

But the opposition is not united on their demands. A group of official opposition parties put forward the proposal that Saleh hand over power to his vice president, Abd Rabou Mansour.

The youth activists who have been organizing the protests are distinct from the opposition parties — and many of them have refused the proposal, believing that it would mean an extended transition that would keep Saleh in power for a longer time.

"We refuse any initiative or proposal that doesn't explicitly state the immediate departure of the president and his sons. That is a central issue that we will not put aside," said Adnan al-Odeini, an activist leader of the protests in Sanaa.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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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