Yemen scrambles for ceasefire as death toll rises

Tue Sep 20, 2011 8:58pm GMT

By Erika Solomon

SANAA (Reuters) - Bursts of shelling threatened a fragile new truce in Yemen's capital Sanaa late on Tuesday as politicians scrambled to end the bloodiest fighting in eight months of anti-government protests.

Both government forces and troops loyal to General Ali Mohsen, who defected to pro-democracy protesters in March, vowed to stand by a cease-fire ordered by Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

But witnesses said two mortars hit the end of a street on Tuesday evening where thousands of protesters were camping out to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule.

"The whole place shook with the explosion and clouds of dust shot up in the air when the second mortar hit," protester Badr Ali said.

The death toll has risen to around 70 since Sunday, when protesters' frustration boiled over at Saleh's refusal to accept a mediated handover plan. Saleh has been in Saudi Arabia since June, where he had surgery on injuries that he suffered in an assassination attempt.

The fighting between state troops and defected soldiers began after tens of thousands of protesters marched on Sunday close to a part of Sanaa controlled by government forces.

World powers fear that chaos in Yemen, home to al Qaeda's most powerful regional branch and adjoining the world's biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia, could imperil oil shipping lanes and raise the risk of militant strikes on Western targets.

Despite the violence, opposition and government sources said talks were continuing over a Gulf-backed transition plan to ease Saleh out of office, from which Saleh has backed out three times.   Continued...

A wounded anti-government protester is carried by medics and fellow protesters after clashes with security forces in Sanaa September 20, 2011.  REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
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