Anti-Government Protests In Yemen Turn Bloody

Dozens of anti-government protesters died in Yemen over the last two days after loyalist security forces opened fire on the main square in the capital Sanaa. Les Campbell, who runs the Middle East and North Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute, talks to Steve Inskeep about the political wrangling over the future of the country.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's try to get some perspective on the excruciating events in Yemen this week. According to witnesses, security forces have killed protestors and even killed children. Dozens of people have been killed since Sunday. Les Campbell is tracking those events from the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit group that supports democracy abroad. He's a regular visitor to Yemen. He's in our studios.

Good morning.

LES CAMPBELL: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How have Yemenis ended up with another round of violence? I thought the president was on his way out.

CAMPBELL: Well, it's an amazing situation where the president was badly injured. Most members of his government were injured at the same time in a bombing on their mosque. The head of the Shura Council, who was standing beside the president at the time, died of his injuries later. He's in Saudi Arabia. He has been since June. And yet there's no transition in Yemen.

Since that moment, two opposing forces basically, defected soldiers from the First Armored Brigade, and the president's son, Ahmed Ali, have been in a standoff, opposing trenches. And this week, the fighting started between those two forces - tanks, mortars, heavy machine guns. And we've seen the casualties.

INSKEEP: Even though the president himself, from Saudi Arabia, has appointed his vice president to negotiate a transition of power, which is the latest of I don't know how many discussions of transition, that's just not happening?

CAMPBELL: Well, the president did issue a decree saying that the vice president could talk, although from the opposition's point of view - and when I say opposition that's a broad word. That could include the southern movement, the protesters in the squares, the political opposition. From the opposition's point of view, this is not really a negotiation. This is just another stalling tactic.

And it's hard to say who fired the first shot. The protesters appear to have been shelled at random. That's where you have the casualties of children of other bystanders. But in the end, there are two military forces and there is really no negotiation, although there is a representative of the U.N. and a representative of the Gulf Cooperation countries in Sanaa right now negotiating.

I mean, the other, I suppose, sad irony of this is just when two negotiators, international negotiators arrived, this fighting started. So it seems that no one's that serious about moving forward.

INSKEEP: And it's two armed groups at this point that are going after each other?

CAMPBELL: Well, it's at least two in the capital. You have two very well-armed groups. The president's son Ahmed Ali, his nephew, who also controls large numbers of forces, what I think we'll call security forces for short, and then Ali Mohsen, a commander, a general who commands a large military camp and many thousands of soldiers. They have trenches right in the middle of the city. And they have positions in the middle of the city.

INSKEEP: Does the second guy, Ali Mohsen, count as a protest leader then or is a defector from the ranks? What do you call him?

CAMPBELL: The president calls him a defector. He has said that he's neutral and he's sworn to protect the protesters. You know, the approximate cause of this week's problems were that the protesters picked up from their square. They in a sense were allowed to stay in a certain place in Sanaa, near the university. They picked up and started to march toward the president's son's sort of holdout.

This is what the, I think, what the government would say. And so they opened fire in a defensive fashion. What Ali Mohsen, the rebel commander, would say is that the security forces opened fire on the protesters and he's protecting them.

In the end, there's no - there aren't two sides in Yemen. There're probably five sides, and it's almost impossible to tell who's who.

INSKEEP: Five sides and does that reflect divisions in the society? There are a lot of different interest groups that could come down in different places and who fear that their interests could be affected here.

CAMPBELL: It's always been a difficult country to govern. Almost impossible. And you have a secessionist movement. You have a political opposition. You have Arab Spring protesters who simply want to move on and have a new government and a new future. And it's - they're not fighting each other. But the president, who's been there for a long time, is refusing to step down. But more importantly, he's refusing to allow a transition to something new. And what Yemen desperately needs is something new.

INSKEEP: Refusing to allow a transition, even as he says to talk, says to work out a transition?

CAMPBELL: Refusing to allow anyone to even really discuss a transfer of power, even though he's not even in the country, and even though the country so desperately needs to move on.

INSKEEP: Mr. Campbell, thanks very much.

CAMPBELL: You're welcome. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute is a regular visitor to Yemen, where there have been dozens of deaths in continuing violence this week.

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