SHAFAQNA – Yemeni security forces briefly broke up a sit-in by Shiite rebels blocking the capital’s airport road Sunday, only to have protesters return and keep the main highway closed after the first violence of a weekslong anti-government protest.
Using water cannons, bulldozers and tear gas, security forces charged at hundreds of protesters, who responded by throwing rocks, security officials said. One person died in the clashes, local hospital officials said, while dozens suffered from overexposure to tear gas.
At one point, protesters commandeered a bulldozer, a water cannon truck and an armored vehicle from the security forces, a witness said, adding that one protester snatched a machine gun from a soldier on an armored vehicle near the Interior Ministry, also on the airport road. Troops fired several warning shots in the air.
The Hawthi rebels had earlier escalated their protests by moving to the road leading to the strategic airport, setting up tents near the Communications Ministry and blocking traffic into Sanaa from the south and west.
They have been demanding that the government resign and reinstate fuel subsidies. Negotiations have failed to diffuse the standoff.
After clashes that lasted for nearly an hour, security forces pulled back to the nearby Interior Ministry, while protesters rebuilt some of the fallen tents. A security official said the road to the airport was once again blocked when protesters erected their tents again.
A senior government official said high-level talks between the rebels and the authorities were ongoing to calm the situation.
Hawthis spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam said in a statement that the attempts to disperse the sit-in will only deepen the crisis, describing it as a “foolish act.”
Other sit-ins by the rebel supporters remained in place around Sanaa near several government ministries. Armed Hawthis have moved from their stronghold in the northern Sadaa province to the outskirts of the capital in recent days to support them.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, while the witness did so for fear of retribution.
The Shiite rebels— camping out for nearly three weeks in Sanaa — have only added to the woes of the country, already struggling with one of the most dangerous offshoots of al-Qaida. Fresh clashes Sunday prompted some families not to send their children to the first day of the new academic semester, for fears over their safety and in anticipation of further violence.
The Hawthis have been calling for the government to resign and reinstate fuel subsidies. But when Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi dismissed his Cabinet on Tuesday and promised to appoint a new premier within a week in a move to offer concessions, the rebels’ only escalated protests.
Fuel prices nearly doubled after the subsidy cuts, but the reaction on the street was limited when it was announced in July. Opponents say the Hawthis are using the issue as a cover and are really just want to seize power. Hadi accuses them of doing the bidding of regional Shiite powerhouse Iran.
The Hawthis waged a six-year insurgency that officially ended in 2010. The following year, the country was convulsed by an Arab Spring-inspired uprising that eventually forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down as part of a U.S.-backed deal that gives him immunity from prosecution.