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(New York) - President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen should immediately halt attacks by security forces on peaceful protesters and journalists and order an investigation into the deaths of at least six protesters since February 16, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks have also injured at least 100 people since February 11.

Pro-government groups who appeared to have support and assistance from uniformed security personnel have attacked peaceful protesters in Sanaa and Aden, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

"The authorities should immediately rein in the security forces and disarm pro-government provocateurs," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "An independent and impartial investigation into the past week's events is needed, and government officials responsible for abuses should be prosecuted."

Prompted in part by the uprisings that led to the resignation on February 11 of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, thousands of protesters have rallied in Yemen since February 3 calling for Saleh to resign. The protests swelled on February 11 and by February 18, tens of thousands were demonstrating in at least eight cities, including Sanaa, the capital, Taizz, and the strategic southern port of Aden.

At least three people were killed in the protests on February 18. One of them died when an unknown assailant threw a hand grenade at protesters in Taizz, Yemeni human rights activists told Human Rights Watch. The activists compiled the names of more than 80 people who were reportedly injured, many of them seriously, during the grenade attack. Also on February 18, security forces in Aden shot dead at least two other anti-government protesters, human rights activists and journalists in Yemen told Human Rights Watch. A fourth protester died in Aden that day of gunshot wounds he had received a day earlier.

Two other protesters had been killed in Aden on February 16 and 17, reportedly prompting anti-government protesters to set fire to a local government building and four cars.

Also in Aden, another 32 people were treated for injuries on February 17, and 17 were injured on February 18, human rights activists told Human Rights Watch. In Sanaa, security forces fired gunshots in the air and used teargas to disperse anti-government protesters on February 18, seriously injuring dozens of protesters; no deaths were reported.

In Sanaa, plainclothes security personnel attacked several photojournalists from international and Yemeni media and confiscated their cameras and video equipment, human rights activists and a representative of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate told Human Rights Watch. They said the journalists were from organizations that included the al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera television networks, and the European News Agency.

Mobs wielding rocks and sticks attacked the anti-government protesters in Sanaa and Aden on February 18 and preceding days, Yemeni human rights activists told Human Rights Watch.

"The people protesting against President Saleh were not armed," one human rights activist who witnessed attacks by government loyalists on February 18 in Sanaa told Human Rights Watch. "When the peaceful protesters started to run, [uniformed] security forces prevented them from leaving or found them hiding in doorways and shouted to the men with sticks and rocks, ‘Here they are!'"

During protests in Sanaa, police were seen driving in vehicles to the perimeter of the demonstrations to supply rocks and sticks to groups attacking anti-government protesters, human rights activists and media reports said. On February 17 in Sanaa, a group of assailants openly chatted with police and soldiers after charging protesters who were calling for Saleh to resign, a foreign journalist at the scene told Human Rights Watch.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Yemen is obligated to protect the rights to life and security of the person, and the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Yemen should also abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which provide that lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life, and must be exercised with restraint and proportionality.

"Yemen's security forces appear to be encouraging and assisting provocateurs who are making deadly attacks against peaceful demonstrators," Whitson said. "Accountability for these crimes should not stop with those using the rocks and sticks."

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