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In bid to revive protests, Yemenis rush to martyrdom

A ceasefire is declared by the Yemeni government after at least 76 people have been killed since this week as anti-government demonstrators heighten the severity of their tone against the regime

Reuters and AFP, Wednesday 21 Sep 2011
Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, (Reuters).
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As trucks screech past carrying bloody bodies and gunfire erupts up ahead, cheerful revolutionary songs blare out of loudspeakers -- and throngs of Yemeni protesters start marching toward to an unknown fate.

"Goodbye friends, I'm headed for martyrdom," shouts one man as he slips into a crowd holding up peace signs and shouting, "God is great! Freedom!"

In the capital Sanaa's "Change Square", where thousands have camped out in ramshackle tents to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule, protesters are determined to rebuild momentum lost after eight months of demonstrations. Many say they are ready to die for it.

Scores of protesters have already died in three days of gunfire, sniper attacks and mortar fire.

The latest violence started on Sunday as police tried to stop the protesters' advance. It soon deteriorated into fierce clashes between pro-opposition forces and loyalist troops that now divide this battle-scarred city between them.

Any further escalation in the protests in the days ahead could throw a wrench into plans for a power transfer deal between opposition groups and the ruling party. . "We aren't afraid. Death is better than a humiliating life," shouts Abdelrahman Mawthaf, a lawyer, eliciting cheers from the protesters around him.

"God willing, you will return a martyr," one replies.

Yemeni activists are eager to end a political stalemate they feel sent the Arab Spring's longest-running protest movement to the bottom of the global news agenda.

Protesters here say they are fighting for a democracy that will topple government leaders they feel are corrupt and offer them little opportunity. Unemployment has sky-rocketed above 35 percent, 40 percent scrape by on two dollars a day or less, while a third suffer malnutrition.

"Before, we were on a path to nowhere. You study for years and there is no job. Your family's villages don't have water," said student protester Rami, 23, watching crowds of protesters flood past.

"You don't have much to lose when you have no future."

That mood is encouraged by protest organisers, who in recent days have used their loudspeakers to scold protesters if they stay in their tents.

As explosions rock the area near the protest camp, many men stretch out on floor cushions and chew qat--a mild green narcotic leaf that most Yemeni men stuff their cheeks with and while away the afternoon.

"Come on everyone get moving! Defend the honor of the martyrs... Where are the free men? Our women are more honorable than you," blares one organiser. A group of women, swathed in black veils, march down the rows of tents encouraging men to spit out their qat and march.

Organisers here have not glossed over the risks of escalating the protests. They say protesters know they must confront the government at any price.

"We have always known the regime is ready to kill, but this cannot deter our plans.... Let our blood spill until the world realizes Yemenis want their freedom," says youth organiser Manea al-Mattari.

Many observers say the new protests will subside if a transition deal is reached between the ruling party and leading opposition groups. Islah, an Islamist party, is believed to have brought the most followers into Change Square.

They have fed demonstrators twice a day and analysts say if Islah accepted a deal, most protesters would retreat with them.

But youth protest groups, like Manea al-Mattari's, say they will push on until all the political elite are out -- including some members of older opposition groups, like Islah, which once served in the government.

In a mosque that protesters have turned into a makeshift hospital, the mutilated bodies of the dead lie out on blankets in a corner, their hands folded serenely on their chest.

"Stop crying, why would you cry?" asks one protest organiser, shaking a young man sobbing over the body of his cousin. "He has become a martyr, there is no better end."
Some are not so sure.

"I don't know if this is worth it or not," says student protester Rami, as he jumps to allow motorbikes carrying mangled bodies to zip past.

"On the other hand, I don't see what other options there are."

Government security forces were heavily deployed as protesters prepared to bury those killed in the worst outbreak of violence in Sanaa in months, but the streets were quiet, an AFP correspondent said .

Late Tuesday, the Yemeni defence ministry declared a ceasefire on orders of Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi. The opposition forces, headed by dissident General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, complied.

The truce came after the three bloodiest days since mass anti-government protests calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign erupted in January.

At least 76 people, mostly unarmed protesters, were killed and hundreds wounded since Sunday as security forces used live fire, including heavy calibre machine guns, to disperse the crowds, which according to some estimates topped 150,000.

One Sanaa resident said he's not optimistic the truce will hold.

"The situation is still tense ... the fighting and clashes could erupt at any time," said Abdel Rahman, 32, adding that though Sanaa was relatively quiet overnight, there had been intermittent gunfire.

Meanwhile, the protesters have called for a "mass" funeral procession to honour their dead.

In a statement released by the Youth Revolutionary Organisation, the group said the procession would begin just after noon prayers and follow the path from the mosque to a cemetery near Change Square.

On the diplomatic front, foreign officials, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity said a meeting between Hadi and UN and regional envoys was expected later Wednesday.

UN Yemen envoy Jamal Benomar and Gulf Cooperation Council chef Abdulatif al-Zayani arrived in Yemen Tuesday in the hopes of finalising agreements on the transfer of power from Saleh to his deputy.

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