Yemeni security forces stand guard in front of the central jail in Sana,… (AFP / Getty Images )
Reporting from Sana, Yemen — Dozens of people were injured Tuesday when Yemen's security forces opened fire on demonstrators demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down after more than three decades in power, witnesses said.
Yemen's government issued a statement saying the violence was caused by people who resisted arrest when authorities caught them with automatic weapons.
The protesters, however, said officers used live ammunition and tear gas when they tried to peacefully claim new territory for a massive sit-in near Sana University. Several people reportedly suffered serious injuries.
"This is the moment. We cannot go back from here," said protester Wael Sakkif, pointing to the blood on the pavement. "This is all Yemen's blood."
The unrest followed a large riot in the nation's largest prison as inmates added their voices to demands for Saleh's removal, news reports and human rights groups said.
Prisoners set mattresses and blankets on fire Monday and marched into the central courtyard of the facility in Sana, the capital. Police used tear gas and fired live ammunition to disperse them. Twenty-five inmates were injured, said Amal Basha, chairwoman of the Sisters Arab Forum, a rights group.
"The people want the regime to fall!" inmates at Sana Central Prison chanted, echoing the popular slogan of the tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets across Yemen.
The riot highlights tension across the nation after nearly a month of massive anti-government protests and a breakdown in negotiations between key opposition leaders and Yemen's beleaguered president, whose regime is widely criticized as corrupt and repressive.
More than 30 protesters have been killed nationwide, according to human rights groups.
Last weekend, the U.S. and British embassies in Sana released statements advising their citizens to consider leaving Yemen because of the threat of terrorism and civil unrest. On Sunday, suspected Al Qaeda gunmen killed six Yemeni officials and soldiers in three separate incidents, according to government statements.
Protesters and opposition figures say the government is trumping up internal threats to gain domestic and international support for Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the battle against Islamic Islamist militants. The Yemeni government has long fought an armed separatist movement, a rebel insurgency and the growth of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an Al Qaeda offshoot based in Yemen's tribal areas.
Saleh has emphasized "stability" and "unity" in public speeches and on placards handed out to supporters. A banner in downtown Sana reads, "Disorder is a support for terrorism."
But negotiations collapsed late last week, and there has been "a total breakdown of talks" between opposition leaders and Saleh, said Aidroos Naqeeb, head of the Yemeni Socialist Party.
"We are calling for a peaceful transition of power," Naqeeb said. "Further dialogue can follow that transition."
Elections are scheduled for September 2013.
The number of police vehicles, soldiers and trucks armed with water cannons deployed in Sana increased this week.
A government news release stated that the increased security measures were in response to "multiple terror attacks on security and army personnel" last weekend, but tension at the anti-Saleh camp increased anyway.
"It looks like the government is getting ready for a fight," one protester said.
Edwards is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman and Garrett Therolf in Cairo contributed to this report.