(Sanaa) - Hundreds of men armed with knives, sticks, and assault rifles attacked anti-government protesters in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, as Yemeni security forces stood by, Human Rights Watch said today. Within an hour, the 1,000-plus protesters had been pushed from the square and at least 10 had been detained by security forces, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch witnessed at least 10 army trucks carrying men in civilian clothing to Sanaa's Tahrir Square, where a crowd of around 1,000 Yemenis had been demonstrating in support of the historic changes in Egypt and against the Yemeni government. Hundreds of men, their arrival coordinated by uniformed security agents, attacked the anti-government protesters with knives and sticks, prompting the majority to flee.
"The Yemeni security forces have a duty to protect peaceful protesters" said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "In this case, security forces seem to have organized armed men to attack the protesters."
A few dozen anti-government demonstrators remained in the square, sitting on the street, but they too fled after being charged by hundreds of armed government supporters. Riot police with water cannons and teargas stood by during the disturbances, blocking off access to the square to everyone except the pro-government provocateurs. The crowds arrived and left in military vehicles, pick-up trucks, and jeeps used by the security forces.
The anti-government rally began in the afternoon of February 11, 2011, in response to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down from office. Independent Yemeni activists in Sanaa called for a candle-light vigil to celebrate the events and by 8:30 p.m. in the evening, hundreds of Yemeni students, academics, activists, and others gathered in front of the new university. Their numbers grew to the thousands. People chanted in support of Egypt, including "The Egyptian people brought down Mubarak!" and "Long live the Egyptian people!"
The chants soon began to focus on the Yemeni government, such as: "Yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt. Tomorrow Yemen will open the prison," and "The people want the regime to collapse."
A crowd marched for an hour from the new university to the Egyptian embassy and their numbers grew to the thousands. They marched past neighborhoods and were cheered by onlookers. They were eventually met by soldiers guarding the Egyptian embassy and they turned around and gathered in Tahrir Square. By about 10:30 p.m. several trucks full of heavily armed soldiers began to arrive.
"The Yemeni government should promptly investigate the attack on the protesters and bring to account all those responsible," said Whitson. "And they should make sure such misuse of state authority does not happen again."