Yemen Rocked by Heavy Shelling; Protesters Killed; US Increases Drone Strikes
September 20, 2011
Al Jazeera & The Washington Post
More Yemeni protestors have been killed in a rocket attack, pushing the toll past 60 as clashes between ex-soldiers and pro-Saleh forces continue. Meanwhile, as violence continues to roil the capital, the Obama administration has significantly increased the frequency of drone strikes and other air attacks against the al-Qaeda affiliate inside Yemen.
Yemeni Toll Rises after Fresh Sanaa Shelling
SANAA (September 20, 2011) -- Heavy shelling and machine gun fire have rocked Yemen's capital Sanaa, leaving at least 11 people dead and several injured in a third day of violence triggered by the deadliest crackdown yet on pro-democracy protesters, witnesses say.
The casualties have pushed the toll to more than 60 since the latest round of violence broke out on Sunday, according to hospital sources.
Shots rang out in the early hours of Tuesday despite reports of a ceasefire between troops loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and soldiers who had defected to the opposition.
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In the lastest clashes five people were wounded when two rockets hit a protest camp, witnesses told Al Jazeera. More than 100 people have been wounded across the country since clashes erupted on Sunday.
"The rockets hit some men who were walking outside by a market," said Dr Mohammed al-Qubati, the director of a field hospital at the protest camp.
According to an activist in Sanaa, the shelling has continued and protesters are being attacked at all entrances of the capital's Change Square.
"The shelling has been going on since yesterday and it is not stopping. Every three hours we can hear explosions," Alaa Jibran, a youth protest leader, told Al Jazeera.
Pro-democracy protesters have planned for a huge march again at 7:00 GMT on Tuesday, Jibran added.
Snipers open Fire
On Monday, government troops and snipers opened fire at peaceful demonstrators and passers-by in Change Square, where they have camped since February demanding regime change, witnesses said.
Protesters were sprayed by water cannons and tear gas, and also baton charged, before the security forces opened fire with machine guns, they said.
Just hours after that incident, protesters and ex-soldiers stormed a base of the elite Republican Guards, who are loyal to the president. Reports said not a single shot was fired as the Guards fled the base, leaving their weapons behind.
The military confrontation between the ex-soldiers and government troops portends a new and even more violent phase in Yemen's eight-month standoff.
Apart from Sanaa, deaths were also reported in the southwestern city of Taiz, where two people were killed and 10 were injured by gunfire from Saleh loyalists, Al Jazeera journalists stationed in Yemen said.
Despite the casualties, mass demonstrations continued on Monday in towns near Taiz -- in Ibb, Dhamar and Shabwa -- and in the northwestern province of Saada.
Abdu al-Janadi, Yemen's deputy information minister, rejected accusations that the government had planned attacks on the protesters, and accused what he described as "unknown assailants" of carrying out the acts.
"This attack was prepared so as to kill as many people as they could ... This is a plot against all the Yemeni people," al-Janadi told a British broadcaster.
The violence ended a weeks-long standoff between the two sides, becoming Yemen's worst incident of bloodshed since a similar massacre killed 52 people in mid-March.
The renewed crackdown on protesters came amid reports that Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, Yemen's vice-president, would sign a Gulf Arab initiative to arrange for a transfer of power in Yemen "within a week".
"Within a week, the vice-president will sign the Gulf Initiative in the name of the president," a high-ranking Saudi official, who requested anonymity, told reporters.
Last week, Saleh authorised Hadi to negotiate a power transfer with the opposition.
The initiative was proposed by the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council and sets the path for a peaceful transition of power from Saleh, who has ruled Yemen since 1978.
According to the Saudi official, "among the guarantees demanded by Saleh are that his son be kept in the next government."
Saleh left the country three months ago for Saudi Arabia where he has been recovering from a June 3 attack on his presidential compound.
The president has since January faced protests over nepotism and corruption from reform activists inspired by the Arab Spring.
US Increases Yemen Drone Strikes
Karen DeYoung / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON (September 16, 2011) -- The Obama administration has significantly increased the frequency of drone strikes and other air attacks against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen in recent months amid rising concern about political collapse there.
Some of the the strikes, carried out by the military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have been focused in the southern part of the country, where insurgent forces have for the first time conquered and held territory as the Yemeni government continues to struggle against escalating opposition to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule.
Unlike in Pakistan, where the CIA has presidential authorization to launch drone strikes at will, each US attack in Yemen -- and those being conducted in nearby Somalia, most recently on Thursday near the southern port city of Kismayo -- requires White House approval, senior administration officials said.
The officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, said intended targets must be drawn from an approved list of key members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula deemed by US intelligence officials to be involved in planning attacks against the West. White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan last week put their number at "a couple of dozen, maybe."
Although several unconfirmed strikes each week have been reported by local media in Yemen and Somalia, the administration has made no public acknowledgment of the escalated campaign, and officials who discussed the increase declined to provide numbers.
The heightened air activity coincides with the administration's determination this year that AQAP, as the Yemen-based group is known, poses a more significant threat to the United States than the core al-Qaeda group based in Pakistan. The administration has also concluded that AQAP has recruited at least a portion of the main insurgent group in Somalia, al-Shabab, to its anti-Western cause.
From its initial months in office, the Obama administration has debated whether to extend the air attacks that have proved so effective in Pakistan to the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Military and intelligence officials have long argued in favor of attacks against al-Shabab camps in Somalia, which have been under overhead surveillance for years. Other officials have questioned the legal and moral justification for intervening in what, until recently, has been a largely domestic conflict.
The administration has said its legal authority to conduct such strikes, whether with fixed-wing planes, cruise missiles or drones, derives from the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing attacks against al-Qaeda and protection of the US homeland, as well as the international law of self-defense.
"The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot' battlefields like Afghanistan," Brennan said in remarks prepared for delivery Friday night at Harvard Law School. "We reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves."
"That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want," Brennan said. "International legal principles, including respect for a state's sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally -- and on the way in which we can use force -- in foreign territories."
In Somalia, the administration backs a tenuous government whose control does not extend beyond the capital, Mogadishu.
In Yemen, Saleh has been a close counterterrorism ally, and Brennan said last week that Yemen's political turmoil, which began in March as part of the upheaval known as the Arab Spring, has not affected that cooperation. US officials have emphasized that violence between loyalist troops and those backing breakaway army officers and tribal leaders has not involved US-trained Yemeni special operations forces. This week, government forces reportedly made gains fighting against entrenched insurgent fighters in the southern port town of Zinjibar.
In the Yemeni capital Sanaa, thousands of anti-government protesters have been camping out in what is known as Change Square for several months, demanding an end to Saleh's rule. The camp has remained quiet for weeks, but Reuters, citing doctors, reported Saturday that soldiers opened fire near the camp overnight and wounded eight protesters. The troops shot in the air to stop demonstrators from trying to expand the area of protest.
As the political conflict drags on, concern has increased over insurgent expansion and future cooperation with whatever government emerges in Yemen.
For months, the administration has called on Saleh to sign an agreement put forward this summer by Persian Gulf states to transfer power to an interim government and hold early elections. His intransigence seems to have increased since June, when Saleh departed for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after being severely injured in an attack on his presidential palace.
He has repeatedly insisted he intends to return to Yemen and retake control of his government, currently being run by Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Last week, the ruling General People's Congress sent a delegation to Riyadh and secured Saleh's agreement to allow Hadi to negotiate with the opposition and implement a political transition. While the opposition called the deal a trick, the Obama administration has tried to push Hadi and the government to take the initiative and negotiate a deal with opponents.
In a statement released late Thursday, the State Department called on the Yemeni government to sign and implement the agreement "within one week."
Until May, the first and only known drone strike in Yemen was launched by the CIA in 2002. As part of its stepped-up military cooperation with Yemen, the Obama administration has used manned aircraft to strike at targets indicated by US and Yemeni military intelligence forces on the ground. In May, JSOC first used a drone to kill two AQAP operatives as part of its new escalation in Yemen.
This summer, the CIA was also tasked with expanding its Yemen operations, and the agency is building its own drone base in the region. It is not clear whether the unilateral strike authority the CIA has in Pakistan will be extended to Yemen.
Administration officials have described the expanded drone campaign as utilizing a "mix of assets," and a senior military official said he knew of no plans or discussions "to change the nature of operations."
"The new base doesn't connote that [the CIA] will be in the lead," the official said. "It offers better teamwork and collaboration between the agencies."
Staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.
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