Nine people die in Yemen fuel price riots


  • World
  • Thursday, 21 Jul 2005

By Mohammed Sudam

SANAA (Reuters) - Nine people were killed and 20 injured in a second day of violent clashes on Thursday between Yemeni security forces and rioters protesting at fuel price hikes. 

In the capital Sanaa, tanks and armoured vehicles took up positions around the presidential palace, government ministries and oil offices. It was the first time tanks have been seen in Sanaa since the rioting broke out on Wednesday. 

Protesters clashed with anti-riot police and security forces in Sanaa and at least six other provinces. 

Three rioters were killed when police fired at protesters trying to break into government oil facilities in the Red Sea port town of Houdeida. Two people died in the southern area of Ta'iz, including a nine-year-old boy looking on from a balcony. 

Two policemen were also among the casualties in the northern province of Saada while two civilians died in the eastern province of Marib. Witnesses said the Houdeida clashes were the fiercest and the sound of gunfire could be heard. 

Most of Houdeida's oil production is used for the local market rather than export. The oil sector provides 65 percent of the budget revenue of Yemen, which pumps 450,000 barrels per day. 

Witnesses said riots eased off later on Thursday but anti-riot police remained on the streets. 

Prime Minister Abdul-Qader Bagammal called for calm on Wednesday, saying people "must differentiate between freedom of expression and freedom of destruction". 

Yemen, which has won U.S. praise for fighting al Qaeda, said the increases were in line with high global oil prices and were part of reforms launched in 1995 and backed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, to prevent economic collapse. 

The government said on Tuesday it would offset the increase by cutting custom tariffs, raising state salaries and reducing a planned general sales tax to 5 from 10 percent. 

U.S. CALL FOR VIGILANCE 

But as soon as the increase went into effect on Wednesday, thousands of angry protesters took to the streets of Yemeni cities, destroying government offices, throwing stones at security forces and blocking roads by setting tyres on fire. 

The clashes were the heaviest death toll in Yemen protests since 1998, when 34 people died in two weeks of demonstrations and violent clashes over price hikes. 

Police cars patrolled streets on Thursday with loudspeakers warning people against destroying public and private property. 

The U.S. embassy in Sanaa advised Americans to remain vigilant and asked embassy personnel to avoid non-essential travel within Yemen over the next week because of the riots. 

Critics said the government would have done better to end widespread government corruption, high military expenditures and red tape to shore up the economy rather than cutting subsidies that mainly hit the poor in the country. 

"The money spent on the fancy cars and travels of government officials is way more than the subsidies," said 35-year-old Khaled al-Sharjabi, a taxi driver who marched in the protests. 

According to World Bank figures, over 42 percent of Yemen's 19 million people live below poverty line, illiteracy is around 50 percent and unemployment is over 20 percent. The population growth rate is 3.5 percent and expected to double in 20 years. 

International donors have warned these problems may overwhelm Yemen, whose oil resources are fast declining, unless it acts decisively. 

They say it needs to restructure the bloated public sector, end corruption and promote the rule of law to woo investors. 

Analysts said the riots posed a challenge to the government but would not shake the grip of long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh who has weathered worse storms in the past including a civil war. 

Most say the government is unlikely to reverse its price hike but could reduce it to appease public anger. 

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