CAIRO — Pro-government gunmen Friday shot at protesters demanding the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, killing at least 45 people and wounding hundreds in Sana, the capital.
The violence at a long-running sit-in near Sana University close to the city center was the deadliest in nearly two months of sustained pro-democracy demonstrations in the country. Tens of thousands of people had gathered for a protest when the shooting began.
"There was no warning," said Muhammad Anam, 26. "People were milling around the area, talking to friends, shouting slogans, and other very ordinary things. But once the firing started, it didn't stop, and continued on and off for hours."
Witnesses said the pro-government gunmen, many of them in civilian clothing, surrounded the protesters shortly after prayers, shooting at them from the ground and from surrounding buildings. A Yemeni photojournalist and a 5-year-old child were among the dead.
Saleh seized on the occasion to declare a state of emergency, giving his government more flexibility to detain citizens without charges and ban their ability to carry weapons. He said government forces did not shoot at demonstrators.
"The police were not present and did not open fire. The clashes happened between citizens and demonstrators," he said at a news conference. "It is clear there are armed elements among the demonstrators."
Saleh, a U.S. ally who has ruled since 1978, has struggled to contain protests sparked as pro-democracy movements began to sweep the Middle East. Political analysts believe he may have to soon strike a political deal with the opposition movement to avert civil war.
The country has a combustible mix of well-armed tribal factions and government security forces that are vulnerable to schisms along tribal and clan lines. Hundreds of tribesmen have joined the sit-in near the university, and some were seen Friday encouraging protesters to remain peaceful despite the shooting.
Yahya Siraj, a 30-year-old school principal among the pro-democracy demonstrators Friday, said he was more determined than ever to oust Saleh.
"I rushed to face the aggressors and saw that they were shooting right at people, not in the air like in previous days," Siraj said.
The sound of blaring horns filled Sana as speeding ambulances attempted to reach the wounded. Doctors struggled to deal with the wave of casualties, which they said ran into the hundreds and were mostly victims of gunfire.
"I personally witnessed members of the central security forces and the president's own Republican Guard fire directly on the protesters," said Taha Nasser, a doctor tending to the wounded. "Only the attackers' side was armed; the protesters were totally peaceful."
As some of the protesters attempted to escape the melee, they encountered rows of burning tires that sent a plume of black smoke above the city. Some of the demonstrators attempted to maneuver through the fire, and both sides threw rocks until pro-government forces fired automatic weapons, witnesses said.
Attendance at the protests regularly reaches the highest levels on Fridays, a day of prayer and gatherings across the Muslim world. But violence during the weekly rite had been rare.
Residents across the city stocked up on water and food in anticipation of increasing instability.
But hours after the gunfire stopped, the scene at the sit-in near Sana University reverted to almost normal, and thousands of protesters returned to their tents to press on with their effort to oust Saleh.
"How can we leave now?" said Adel Shihari, a 21-year old student. "This government has shown its true face today."
A special correspondent in Sana, Yemen, contributed to this report.