Middle East

Yemen unrest: 'Ceasefire' halts fighting in Sanaa

Media captionAnti-government activist Ahmed Al-Shawish said the action was ''cruel and aggressive''

A ceasefire has been agreed in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, after government forces shelled a protester camp there, killing seven people, reports say.

It was apparently negotiated by Yemen's vice-president and Western envoys.

The city fell quiet before sunset after hours-long gun battles between government troops and armed opponents spread into the wealthiest suburbs.

Government soldiers launched a bloody assault on protesters on Sunday in which dozens have now died.

The latest violence is the worst the country has seen for several months.

The protesters want President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stand down.

Mr Saleh, who has ruled the country for more than three decades, has been in Saudi Arabia since June, when he was seriously injured in a rocket attack on his presidential compound.

He has refused to stand down and is promising to return to the country.

Negotiated truce

Only sporadic bursts of gunfire could be heard after Tuesday's ceasefire came into effect at 16:00 (13:00GMT) on Tuesday.

The truce was negotiated by Vice-President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and several foreign envoys, including the US and British ambassadors in Sanaa, unnamed officials were quoted as telling the Associated Press news agency.

Everyone will now be watching to see if the calm lasts, says BBC Middle East Correspondent Jon Leyne from Cairo - and whether it provides space for negotiations over a handover of power currently being mediated by international representatives.

Envoys from the UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council arrived in Yemen on Monday to try to sort out a deal to end the bloodshed.

Violence erupted before dawn on Tuesday, as a rocket attack hit worshippers returning from early morning prayers.

Witnesses said government snipers targeted protesters from the rooftops in Sanaa, and that the main protest camp in Change Square came under intense shelling.

According to doctors, three opposition soldiers, three protesters and a civilian bystander were killed by the rocket attacks on the camp, where tens of thousands of protesters have been calling for the president to stand down.

Manea al-Matari, a protester, told Reuters news agency: "We were walking back from prayers. All of a sudden a rocket hit close by from out of nowhere, and some people fell down.

"And then a second one came and that's when we saw the two martyred."

Government forces were also involved in full-scale combat - involving intense mortar and machine gun fire - with the army unit that defected to the protesters months ago. Witnesses said military aircraft targeted positions held by the opposition troops.

The rebel military unit had been protecting protesters in the city centre, and opposition supporters were reportedly caught in the crossfire.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed its alarm at reported gunfights inside in al-Gomhori hospital - one of Sanaa's main medical centres.

Ministers have consistently denied that their soldiers have targeted civilians or peaceful demonstrators, telling the BBC that the unrest was initiated by al-Qaeda-linked forces within the opposition.

'Humanitarian crisis'

Analysts say the final battle for control of the country could pit the republican guards against opposition troops and their tribal allies.

Image caption The latest violence is the worst the country has seen for several months

On Tuesday, fighting spread to the Hadda neighbourhood, which is home to government officials and several members of Mr Saleh's inner circle.

Reports said the gun battles there were likely to be between government troops and tribes long hostile to the Saleh regime.

Mass protests and killings by security forces have also been reported in the cities of Taiz and Aden in recent days.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. It faces multiple crises and some analysts already see it as a failed state.

It has an active al-Qaeda cell, as well as a separatist movement in the south and a Shia-dominated uprising in the north.

Aid agencies warn that the country is suffering a severe humanitarian crisis with about 7.5 million Yemenis - one third of the population - going hungry.

Mr Saleh had enjoyed long periods of support from the US and West by casting himself as an implacable enemy of al-Qaeda and other extremists.

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