SANAA, Yemen, (AP) – The Yemeni government escalated its efforts to stop mass protests calling for the president’s ouster on Tuesday, with soldiers firing rubber bullets and tear gas at students camped at a university in the capital in a raid that left at least 98 people wounded, officials said.
The army stormed the Sanaa University campus hours after thousands of inmates rioted at the central prison in the capital, taking a dozen guards hostage and calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. At least one prisoner was killed and 80 people were wounded as the guards fought to control the situation, police said.
Yemen has been rocked by weeks of protests against Saleh, inspired by recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that drove out those nations’ leaders. Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the campaign against al-Qaeda, has been in power 32 years. In a sign that the protests are gaining traction, graffiti calling for Saleh to step down surfaced Tuesday in his birthplace, village of Sanhan, for the first time since the protests began.
Students at Sanaa University have been sleeping on campus since mid-February, shortly after the start of the protests calling for the country’s president to step down.
Medical officials said many of the 98 people wounded were in serious condition. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information. Witnesses reported seeing armored vehicles and personnel carriers headed to the area of the university.
“It’s a massacre,” said opposition spokesman Muhammad Qahtan. “It is a crime by security troops against students engaged in a peaceful sit-in.”
Demonstrations also continued elsewhere in the country. In the southern port city of Aden, a crowd of women joined a demonstration after a young protester was shot in the head and critically wounded during a rally there the previous day.
Tens of thousands took to the streets in the Ibb province, calling on the government to bring to justice those responsible for a deadly attack there Sunday. Opposition activists blamed “government thugs” who descended on protesters camped out on a main square. One person was killed in that violence and 53 people were hurt.
Even before Yemen was hit by the wave of protests, the country was growing increasingly chaotic with a resurgent al-Qaeda, a separatist movement in the south and a Shiite rebellion occasionally flaring in the north.
Seeking to head off the protests, Saleh called for national dialogue after meetings Monday with the country’s top political and security chiefs. The state-run news agency said the conference would be held Thursday and would include thousands of representatives from across Yemen’s political spectrum.
But opposition leader Yassin Said Numan said there would be no dialogue unless Saleh agreed to step down by year’s end.
Saleh’s recent pledge not to run for re-election in 2013 has failed to quell the protests.
The unrest at the prison started late Monday when inmates set their blankets and mattresses ablaze and occupied the facility’s main courtyard, a security official said.
Prison guards fired tear gas and gunshots in the air but failed to subdue the rioters, the security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to talk to the media. The prison revolt was still going on Tuesday afternoon, he said.
Residents close to the prison reported hearing gunfire and blasts and said troops were bringing in military reinforcements.
Abdelrahman Burman, a lawyer who heads a human rights organization called “Sajin” — Arabic for prisoner — said at least one inmate was killed by a bullet fired by riot police and more than 80 people were wounded, including 20 policemen and prison guards.
He said about half of the wounded were shot and the rest suffered breathing problems and fainting because of the tear gas.
A police official confirmed the casualty numbers. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.