Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a protest in Sanaa

© 2011 Reuters

(New York) - Provocateurs loyal to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh abruptly ceased attacks on peaceful demonstrators in Sanaa on February 20, 2011, according to sources in the Yemeni capital, Human Rights Watch said today. But violence in the south continued as security forces reportedly shot dead one protester in the port of Aden.

Protests by demonstrators calling for Saleh's resignation continued in a half-dozen cities, including Aden, Taizz, and Sanaa.

"Stopping pro-government provocateurs is a positive step, but President Saleh needs to ensure that the authorities allow peaceful protests across Yemen," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

More than 1,000 students and other protesters at Sanaa University were suddenly left in peace the afternoon of February 20, after 10 days of attacks that had continued through that morning by gangs of provocateurs. These included individuals in civilian clothes that witnesses said they recognized as members of the security forces. Municipal police - who had stood by in previous days as the gangs attacked with weapons, including guns, sticks, blocks of cement, and daggers - underscored the shift by approaching the students to say they would protect them, activists at the scene told Human Rights Watch.

The students announced they will erect tents and stage an indefinite sit-in in an open area at the gates of Sanaa University. They immediately named the gateway "Change Square," in an effort to emulate the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"They are singing, they are chanting, they are peaceful. It is a beautiful moment," Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni activist and journalist participating in the sit-in, told Human Rights Watch.

In Aden, which has been the epicenter of a simmering separatist movement for several years, tanks and armored vehicles patrolled the streets. Human rights activists told Human Rights Watch they have identified 10 protesters shot dead by security forces in Aden between February 16 and 19, in addition to the person reported killed on February 20.

The activists said that on the morning of February 20, police in Aden arrested Hassan Baoum, a prominent member of Yemen's Southern Movement, from a hospital where he was undergoing medical treatment. As of that evening, Baoum's whereabouts remained unknown.

Two other protesters initially believed to have died in Taiz and Sanaa in previous days were instead in critical condition, the activists said. One was injured by a grenade thrown at anti-Saleh protesters by an unknown assailant and the other from gunshot wounds to the head fired by a man the activists believed to be a security agent in plainclothes. More than 100 others have been injured in protests across Yemen.

The abrupt disappearance of the pro-Saleh provocateurs in Sanaa coincided with a speech by the president in which he condemned attacks on protesters and urged dialogue with the students and opposition parties. Saleh has publicly blamed the uprisings on unspecified foreign influences.

The opposition coalition group Joint Meeting Parties has said it will not enter into any negotiations with the president until the violence stops and has lately made statements supporting the protesters. More than a dozen prominent members of the ruling General Peoples Congress, including members of parliament, have either resigned or threatened to resign if the violence continues.