SANAA, Yemen – A crackdown that killed dozens failed to stop massive demonstrations against Yemen's U.S.-backed president, as crowds of thousands clashed Saturday with security forces smashing their protest camps and even seized control of one southern city.
In the capital, the government had to bring out tank units and other military forces to protect key buildings as crowds swelled. Protesters also stood their ground in the southern city of Mualla, surging out of their destroyed encampment and encircling a police station.
More than a month of daily protests calling for political freedoms and an end to corruption have presented President Ali Abdullah Saleh with the most dire challenge to his 32 years of running Yemen, a deeply impoverished land of restive tribes and numerous conflicts on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
In the bloodiest single day of the uprising, Yemeni forces killed at least 46 people and injured hundreds in the capital on Friday, including with snipers firing on demonstrators from rooftops. That prompted condemnation from the U.N. and the United States, which backs his government with hundreds of millions in military aid to battle a potent al-Qaida offshoot based in Yemen's mountainous hinterlands.
The intensifying crackdown followed failed attempts by Saleh early on to end the revolt, including by pledging not to run for re-election in 2013 or to hand power to his son. The opposition has also spurned his calls for dialogue on a possible unity government. All the while, allies have abandoned him to join the protesters, including two Cabinet ministers, powerful tribal leaders and members of his Congress Party.
On Saturday, police fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters at a makeshift camp in Mualla, a city in the southern province of Aden. At least 13 people were wounded, including three hit by the live rounds, demonstrators told The Associated Press by telephone.
Thousands surged out of the camp and surrounded a nearby police station in an attempt to seize it. Police fired in the air to hold them back, protesters told the AP. They said security troops managed to uproot their encampment there but confrontations continued.
In the same province, witnesses said protesters chased security authorities out of the city of Dar Saad and were now in control. Dar Saad, with a population of around 150,000, has witnessed some of the deadliest clashes in the past few days — seven people have been killed. It is considered the gateway to the key port of Aden.
If their hold lasts, it would be the first city where protesters have gained control over security forces.
During confrontations there over the past few days, protesters set fire to the main police station, torched several police cars and blocked roads to stop security troops from bringing in reinforcements.
Residents said were now forming popular committees to administer their own affairs.
Even before the uprising, many parts of Yemen were effectively beyond the weak government's direct control, as well-armed tribes run affairs in their areas.
Protests also continued Saturday in the capital, Sanaa, as soldiers in tanks and armored personnel carriers took up positions at intersections and key buildings, including the presidential palace, the state TV building and other government institutions. Soldiers searched motorists and passers-by.
Security and judicial officials told AP that orders to implement a large-scale military operation aimed at emptying main squares from protesters within the next 48 hours had been issued at a meeting of the higher defense council that was headed by Saleh Friday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the decisions taken. They said authorities were also planning to arrest opposition leaders in the next days.
Many of the victims in Friday's violence in Sanaa were shot in the head and neck, their bodies left sprawled on the ground. They included a Yemeni news photographer, Jamal al-Sharaabi, who was the first journalist killed in the unrest.
The violence was condemned by the United States, which has long relied on Saleh for help fighting the al-Qaida branch based in the country and is sending Yemen's government $250 million in military aid this year.
Saleh blamed the opposition for "incitement and chaos" that led to violent confrontations and deaths and declared Sunday a national day of mourning for the "martyrs of democracy."
Several more prominent members of Saleh's ruling Congress Party announced their resignations Saturday. Among them were two former culture ministers, the head of the state-run Saba news agency, Nasr Taha Moustafa, who has close ties to Saleh, as well as the Yemeni ambassador to Beirut.
A group of Yemeni private sector businessmen, traditionally supporters of the regime because of shared business interests, also said in a statement Saturday that they were siding with the opposition in support of their "rightful and legitimate call for change."
Saba also reported that the Information Ministry deported two Al-Jazeera TV correspondents Saturday for the network's coverage of protests.
Yemen has largely stopped issuing journalist visas as it tries to control coverage of the protests and has been cracking down on reporters already in the country. On Monday, armed Yemeni security forces raided an apartment shared by four Western journalists — two Americans and two Britons — and deported them because of their coverage.
(This version CORRECTS name of city to Mualla).)