Yemen’s president declared a nationwide state of emergency after snipers killed at least 31 people as they fired on a crowd of thousands of anti-government demonstrators.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh says the decision was made by the country’s Highest Defence Council.
The announcement came a few hours after the snipers opened fire from rooftops. Hundreds were injured.
The protest was the largest yet in the popular uprising that began a month ago – and the harsh government response marked a new level of brutality from Saleh’s security forces.
Dozens of enraged protesters stormed several buildings that were the source of the gunfire, detaining 10 people including paid thugs whom they said would be handed to judicial authorities.
Demonstrators have camped out in squares across Yemen for over a month to demand that Saleh leave office.
Security forces and pro-government thugs have used live fire, rubber bullets, tear gas, sticks, knives and rocks to suppress them. The protesters say they will not leave until Saleh does.
Before the shooting in Sanaa, a military helicopter flew low over the square as protesters arrived from prayers.
Gunfire soon erupted from rooftops and houses above the demonstrators, where eyewitnesses said beige-clad elite forces and plainclothes security officials took aim.
Other police used burning tyres and petrol to make a wall of fire that blocked demonstrators from fleeing down a main road leading to sensitive locations, including the president’s residence.
Panic and chaos swept the square, where dozens of dead and wounded sprawled on the ground. Witnesses said the snipers aimed at heads, chests and necks. Protesters carried their friends, scarves pressed over bleeding wounds.
“It is a massacre,” said Mohammad al-Sabri, an opposition spokesman. “This is part of a criminal plan to kill off the protesters, and the president and his relatives are responsible for the bloodshed in Yemen today.”
Doctors at the makeshift field hospital near the protest camp at Sanaa University confirmed at least 31 dead, three of them children.
Protests have erupted in three part of Syria in the gravest unrest in years in one of the Middle East’s most repressive states, reports say.
The government’s TV channel and news agency said “infiltrators” in the southern town of Deraa caused “chaos and riots” and smashed cars and public and private property before they attacked riot police who chased them off.