YEMEN. Yemeni security forces and unidentified snipers opened fire at a protest in Sanaa after Muslim prayers on Friday, killing at least 40 people and wounding 200 others, medical sources and witnesses told Reuters.
Security forces at first fired into the air to prevent anti-government protesters from marching after prayers from their headquarters at Sanaa University.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared a nationwide state of emergency shortly after the shootings, denying that security forces had been involved and promising a full investigation. The state news agency said the state of emergency would last 30 days.
Saleh has promised to step down in 2013 and offered a new constitution giving more powers to parliament, but he has refused his critics' main demand to quit immediately.
A string of Saleh's allies have recently defected to the protesters, who are frustrated by rampant corruption and soaring unemployment. Some 40% of the population live on US$2 a day or less in Yemen, and a third face chronic hunger.
After the initial gunfire, the shooting continued and the toll mounted. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the deaths, with witnesses saying firing appeared to come from different directions.
Tens of thousands of Yemenis had gathered in Sanaa for competing prayers and protests as businessmen floated a proposal to end a standoff between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and protesters demanding he step down immediately.
"The situation is tragic. There are dozens killed and hundreds wounded. We couldn't send relief," said Abdul-Qawi al-Shumeiri, secretary-general of the doctor's syndicate.
Protesters accused plainclothes snipers of firing from rooftops, and said they had detained several of the gunmen.
"The youth stormed one of the buildings and arrested seven snipers who were firing on the demonstrators," said activist Mohamed al-Sharaby.
Yemen, next door to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, has been rocked by weeks of demonstrations that have undermined Saleh's grip on power. Tens of thousands of protesters were also gathered in cities across Yemen, from the southern port city of Aden to Hodeida in the west.
The United States, which has long seen Saleh as a bulwark against a dynamic al Qaeda wing based in Yemen, has condemned the bloodshed and backed the right for peaceful protest, but has insisted only dialogue can end the political crisis.