After weeks appearing to tolerate mostly peaceful protests, Yemen's government lashed out at demonstrators today with deadly violence. An attack that killed at least 40 protesters brought swift condemnation from the U.S. government.
In the capital city of Sana'a today, snipers fired on a crowd of tens of thousands of anti-government protesters, the largest yet assembled. In addition to the dozens of deaths, over 200 people were injured in what a spokesman for the opposition termed a "massacre."
As crowds tried to escape the melee, Yemeni police corralled them with blockades made of burning tires.
After the attack, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared a state of emergency, allowing the government to tighten its control further over the opposition. Saleh has held power in Yemen for three decades.
In a statement issued this morning, President Obama called on Saleh "to adhere to his public pledge to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully," and said that the people responsible for the violence "must be held accountable."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed this afternoon, saying the United States is "alarmed" by the violence and that the Yemeni people "have the universal rights to demonstrate peacefully, to freely assemble, and to express themselves without fear of intimidation or death."
Thus far, protests in Yemen had been largely peaceful and controlled. At first, when opposition groups demanded the ouster of President Saleh last month, Saleh appeared to diffuse the tension by quickly promising that neither he nor his son would run for the position in the next election in 2013.
Protests, though, have continued and grown in size in recent weeks.
Yemen, destabilized by tribal wars and widespread poverty, has become a home base for al Qaeda. The U.S. government believes al Qaeda in Yemen is a grave threat, and should the Saleh government fall, the United States would lose a key ally in its fight against terrorism.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, with half the population living on less than $2 a day and some 40 percent unemployed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.