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(Sanaa) - Yemeni officials and security forces have facilitated attacks by armed gangs on peaceful anti-government protesters in places away from the capital of Sanaa, or stood by while such attacks occurred, Human Rights Watch said today. Pro-government gangs injured more than 30 protesters in two such attacks on March 2 and 3, 2011.

In al-Baida', a city in central Yemen, large groups of armed men opened fire on demonstrators seeking the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, injuring at least five people on March 3, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Some community leaders alleged that local officials had recruited the attackers. In the western port city of al-Hudaida, witnesses said security forces stood by as assailants attacked anti-Saleh protesters with daggers and stones during prayer time on March 2, injuring more than two dozen people.

"The world is watching largely peaceful protests in Sanaa, but Yemeni officials are at best standing by or at worst helping gangs assault demonstrators in places far from the public eye," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Governments in the region and beyond claiming to support democratic reform and accountability should urge President Saleh to halt these thuggish attacks now."

On February 23 Saleh promised that security forces would allow peaceful demonstrations and thwart any attacks on protestors. Since then, protests in the capital have been largely peaceful and generally open to journalists.

In al-Baida' on March 3, men armed with weapons, including assault rifles, opened fire on a crowd of thousands of protestors, three people at the scene told Human Rights Watch. The protesters have been holding peaceful demonstrations over the past two weeks at the Children of Revolutionaries Square (Maidan Abna' al-Thuwwar), the witnesses said. Many of the armed men waved posters of Saleh, according to a human rights activist and a journalist who witnessed the attack.

Many gunmen were riding in or on top of vehicles, including four vans, a military jeep, and five cars with government license plates, said Fahd al-Tawil, a journalist with Marib Press news service who filmed and photographed the attack from a rooftop. Some of the gunmen fired from nearby rooftops, al-Tawil told Human Rights Watch.

The anti-government protesters, who did not have weapons, joined arms and formed a line to block the armed men when they first converged on the square, the witnesses said.

"As soon as they reached us we took our shoes off and held them in the air," anti-government protester Husain al-Hu'airi told Human Rights Watch. "The pro-government protesters started throwing shoes and stones and bottles of water at us, and we did the same. Then they started shooting at us."

The anti-Saleh protesters had been staging a sit-in at the park since February 17. Al-Tawil, the Marib Press journalist, told Human Rights Watch that as the gunmen began shooting, protesters shouted, "It's peaceful, it's peaceful," and "Leave, leave."

At least four of the five injured were treated at local hospitals for bullet wounds, including a 12-year-old boy who was shot in the hand, two of the witnesses said. Al-Tawil said he saw one of the anti-Saleh protesters hit by a bullet. Ali ‘Atush, a local human rights activist, said he heard around one hundred shots fired and collected casings from Kalashnikov rounds at the scene.

The armed men came from a football stadium about three kilometers away, where several thousand people had rallied in support of Saleh earlier in the day, the witnesses said.

Al-Tawil, who was at the pro-government gathering in the stadium, said al-Baida' community leaders there told him that thousands of men had come from outlying areas because the al-Baida' governor's office and local ruling party officials had paid 200,000 Yemeni Riyals (US$950) to each district contributing men. Al-Tawil said that at the end of the rally he heard al-Baida' Governor Muhammad Nasir al-‘Amri order the community leaders to encourage their followers at the rally to march on the demonstrators, but that some of the community leaders had refused. Local pro-government protesters at the rally who opposed the attacks later told the anti-government protestors that the al-Baida' authorities had "paid them money and food" to join the fray, al-Hu'airi, one anti-Saleh protester, said.

In al-Hudaida, four witnesses told Human Rights Watch that scores of security officials watched as gangs of men attacked anti-Saleh protesters with daggers, sticks, and fireworks on March 2 while some demonstrators were performing their midday prayer. The attack in People's Park (al-Sha'b) wounded between 25 and 30 people, many with cuts, head injuries, or broken noses, they said.

"They threw stones and lit fireworks and threw them at us. They chased us and beat us with their fists," said Basim al-Jin'ani, a journalist for and the independent newspaper Al-Masdar, who witnessed the attack. "Dozens of General Security officers watched the whole thing and did nothing."

When the anti-Saleh protesters then began chasing the attackers, some assailants fled into the governor's building, which faces the park, al-Jin'ani said. Security officials stopped the attack after four leading protestors met with the governor and pressed him to order General Security to intervene, said Mustafa al-Ibrahim, an anti-Saleh protester, and Abd al-Hafif al-Hutami, a local activist and journalist with Al-Sahwa newspaper and Suhail TV.

Al-Hutami said he saw some security officials retreat into the governor's building just before the attack. He said the city's director of General Security told him that his men had not intervened because they did not want to be accused of involvement in the attack and to protect the governor's building.

The pro-government assailants had congregated at the nearby al-Muhafad park in recent days and had attacked the protesters at the square at least twice previously, three witnesses said.

"The officials who organized these attacks or stood by and did nothing have as much blood on their hands as the assailants with guns and daggers," Stork said. "Yemeni authorities need to publicly order a halt to these attacks, conduct immediate and impartial investigations, and hold those responsible to account."

In addition to the attacks documented by Human Rights Watch, Yemeni soldiers opened fire on protesters in the northern town of Harf Sufyan on March 4, killing at least two and wounding seven, according to international and Yemeni news reports. The reports said protesters had been throwing rocks at a military post. Human Rights Watch was unable to immediately confirm the information.

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