Hundreds of soldiers loyal to Yemen's embattled president stormed a protest camp in a southern city on Monday and fired on the crowds indiscriminately, killing at least 20 people, according to medical official and witnesses.
The city of Taiz has been a hotbed of anti-government protests since crowds began calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ouster in early February. The heavy crackdown there signalled Mr. Saleh was still intent on preserving his 33-year rule despite the upheaval, intense international pressure to step aside and defections by key allies and some army units.
Security forces first tried to clear the square in Taiz with water cannons, tear gas and sound bombs, sending thousands rushing for shelter.
Forces from the Republican Guard, which is commanded by one of Mr. Saleh's sons, then moved in before dawn with tanks and bulldozers, said Sadek al-Shugaa, head of a field hospital at the protest camp.
Republican Guard soldiers along with security forces and armed men in civilian clothes attacked the protesters. Some set fire to dozens of tents used by the protesters, and bulldozers ran over hundreds of other tents without checking whether any protesters were still inside, two witnesses said.
One of them, Mohammed al-Zarafi, said he saw tents being set on fire while injured protesters were still inside.
The other witness, protester Boushra al-Maqtali, called the attack “a real massacre.”
“The square and the (field) hospital are in ruins,” she said. “The tanks took the place of hundreds of tents that were set up there. The artillery units are occupying the whole space to make it impossible for the youth to return to the square,” she said.
Troops also attacked the Majeedi Hotel overlooking the square, where journalists were detained, Mr. al-Shugaa said. Then snipers took over the top of the building to shoot at protesters. Amateur video aired by Al-Jazeera TV showed masked men with rifles shooting from rooftops at the protesters in the street.
Mr. al-Shaga said “most of the injuries are critical in the head, chest and neck.” He said several dozen of the injured were dragged away by security forces and vanished.
Yemen's unrest has veered dramatically in the past week.
The failure of a mediation effort by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations seeking to persuade Mr. Saleh to transfer power gave way to five days of fierce street battles in the capital last week between pro-Saleh military units and armed men loyal to the country's most powerful tribal leader, who has joined the opposition. The fighting killed 124 people.
In the south, meanwhile, hundreds of Islamic militants seized the small town of Zinjibar near the Gulf of Aden coast on Friday.
On Monday, they shot dead four military officers who stopped at fake checkpoints the militants set up along the road from the town to the port city of Aden, according to a medical official at al-Razi hospital. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists.
Mr. Saleh's opponents, including some in the military, have accused him of allowing the militants to take control of the area as a way to spread fear that his ouster would deliver the country to al-Qaeda. He has repeatedly argued this point, but has failed to win international backing for his continued rule.
The United States, which once saw him as an essential ally in battling the al-Qaeda branch in the country, has turned its back on Mr. Saleh, pressing him to step down.
Meanwhile, witnesses said Yemeni warplanes carried out air strikes on a southern town seized by hundreds of Islamic militants over the weekend.
Resident Ali Dahmas says he saw fighter jets firing at the southern outskirts of the town of Zinjibar and heard loud explosions that sent up columns of smoke. He spoke to The Associated Press by phone on Monday.
Military units battled the militants in Zinjibar overnight and into the morning in an attempt to clear the fighters from the town, where they've blockaded themselves behind barricades and rocks.
Shelling killed at least four of the fighters, bringing the death toll there since Saturday to 34, according to an official at al-Razi hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to journalists.