SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni troops loyal to embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh opened fire Tuesday at thousands of protesters calling for his ouster, killing two and wounding at least 40 people, a medical official said.
The demonstration against the country's longtime ruler was taking place since early morning hours in the capital Sanaa. The protesters marched through the streets surrounding Change Square, the name given to a central intersection where the uprising against Saleh started in February.
"The people want to prosecute the butcher," the protesters chanted, demanding a trial for Saleh. Some also held posters saying that after the death of Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, it was time for Saleh to "listen to your people."
Amid the shooting, the marchers were forced to retreat from the surrounding streets to Change Square.
Saleh's forces then exchanged gunfire with troops from renegade army units lead by Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who defected to the opposition early on in the uprising and whose forces now escort and protect the protesters.
Mohammed al-Qubati, who runs a field hospital at the protesters' camp site, said two protesters were killed and at least 40 were wounded by Saleh's forces. He said dozens also suffered breathing difficulties because of tear gas fired by the troops and several passed out.
Saleh has clung to power despite more than nine months of massive near-daily street protests against him, inspired by popular uprisings that ousted autocratic rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. A June assassination attempt severely wounded him and forced him to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia for several months.
But after his abrupt return to Yemen last month, a violent crackdown against regime opponents followed, with outright street battles in Sanaa as Saleh resisted growing international calls to step down.
Saleh has also balked at signing a deal brokered by his powerful Arab Gulf neighbors and the United States in hopes of providing a smooth transition of power. Under the agreement, Saleh would resign and hand power to his vice president in return for immunity from prosecution.
On Friday, a U.N. Security Council resolution called for Saleh to immediately accept the deal and expressed grave concern at the worsening security and humanitarian situation in Yemen. Saleh issued a statement Monday "accepting" the resolution and inviting the opposition to a dialogue. The opposition dismissed the statement, saying the gesture was not serious.
There are also worries that with fighting intensifying and a civil war breaking out, U.S. and Saudi efforts to fight Yemen's dangerous al-Qaida branch would seriously be undermined. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known, is considered by the U.S. to be the most dangerous of the terror network's affiliates after it plotted two recent failed attacks on American soil.
Also Tuesday, a Yemeni military plane crashed shortly before landing at the al-Ammad air base near the southern city of Aden.
Four people on board were killed and 11 injured, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. The official said a technical problem might have caused the crash. He said there were eight Syrians and seven Yemenis on board.
(This version CORRECTS that Yemeni military plane crashed Tuesday, not Monday.)