As Violence Returns in Yemen, Peace Deal Recedes

The sudden attack on peaceful protesters may further entrench Saleh's remaining forces

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A woman reacts as she waits outside a makeshift clinic for news about her son, who was injured during clashes, in Sana'a / Reuters

The scenes from this week's violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a are visceral and disturbing: a man's face reduced to a bloody pulp; a teenager walking through a crowd, sobbing, holding the dismembered arm of a friend; rows of corpses, some with intravenous drips still beside them, the doctors too busy to remove them as more wounded are rushed into the makeshift field hospitals; among the bodies, a young girl with a bullet wound to her forehead, and a woman in an abaya standing over her. The journalists reporting and tweeting from the floors of mosques-turned-emergency rooms all use the same word: horrifying.

Numbers are still hard to come by: by most counts, 26 protesters were killed on Sunday and another  28 on Monday, with hundreds more wounded. Fighting continued on Tuesday as government forces pressed in on the protester camp with mortars and sniper fire. The violence follows a relative lull in Yemen's popular uprising, which began early this year. In the spring, the uprising had moments of extreme bloodshed -- pro-regime snipers killed 42 protesters in March; in June, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was injured in a bomb blast that sparked two weeks of fighting between tribal opposition forces and pro-regime Republican Guardsmen commanded by the president's son, Ahmed. The summer, characterized by a tense ceasefire while Saleh recovered in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, was comparatively calm. As of only a week ago, a resolution to the political crisis seemed nearer than it had in months.

The Democracy ReportOn September 12, Saleh authorized his vice president to negotiate and sign an agreement to resolve the political crisis through a peaceful transfer of power. Such an accord has been discussed since April, and over the course of May, Saleh committed on three separate occasions to sign a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional political body, only to back out each time at the last moment. Because of Saleh's previous recalcitrance, protesters and experts were cautious about this latest agreement. One protester in Sana'a asked reporter Tom Finn, "Why do you guys in the West keep falling for the same old tricks?" Gregory Johnsen, a doctoral candidate at Princeton and expert on Yemeni affairs, likened Saleh to Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. Despite the doubts over Saleh's sincerity, the U.S. State Department thought the development promising enough to issue a press release. In it, spokesperson Victoria Nuland cited "encouraging signs" and expressed hope that "an agreement is reached and the signing of the GCC Initiative takes place within one week."

Protesters escalated their demonstrations this week by organizing marches beyond the area of Sana'a protected by defected military forces, where they had previously remained. It is unclear how the fighting started on Sunday, but it happened as protesters approached Kentucky Roundabout, so-called because of a counterfeit Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant located on the street. Government forces in the square and above opened fire on the march. Journalists on the ground have reported the use of tear gas, sniper rifles, and other small arms, as well as .50 caliber machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, and rocket propelled grenades. A doctor at one of the field hospitals told Al Jazeera English, "In most cases, the victims are targeted in the head, the neck or the chest," an assessment corroborated by Finn. The government forces are not shooting indiscriminately, but to kill.

Presented by

J. Dana Stuster, a Joseph S. Nye National Security Research Intern at Center for a New American Security, is a writer living in Washington, DC.

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