Yemeni president's troops kill 40 in new battles

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In one of the bloodiest days of Yemen's uprising, government troops backed by snipers and shelling have attacked a square full of Yemeni protesters and battled with pro-opposition forces in the capital, killing at least 40 people and littering the streets with bodies.

Saturday's violence signalled an accelerated attempt by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his loyalists to crush their rivals and tighten his grip on the country after his return a day earlier from Saudi Arabia, where he has been undergoing treatment for the past three months for wounds suffered in an assassination attempt.

One of Saleh's top rivals Maj Gen Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar called for international help, asking the US and other regional powers to rein him in. He warned that Saleh is pushing the country into civil war and compared him to the Roman emperor Nero, burning down his own city.

In a strongly worded statement, al-Ahmar called Saleh a 'sick, vengeful soul' who treats Yemen like his personal estate.

"With his return, Yemen is experiencing sweeping chaos and the harbingers of a crushing civil war which this ignorant man is determined to ignite," said al-Ahmar, who was once a close ally of Saleh but early on in the uprising joined the opposition along with the 1st Armoured Division he commands.

Sanaa has become a city divided between rival gunmen, with barracks and roadblocks manned by men in different uniforms indicating their loyalties.

The city's streets have become too dangerous for the residents to venture out. Many took cover in basements because of the ongoing thuds of mortars during fighting that has killed at least 140 people the past week.

The turmoil is a blow to US efforts to find a stable transfer of power to ensure the continued fight against al-Qaida militants in Yemen, who Washington says constitute the most dangerous branch of the terror network.

With the country spiralling deeper into disorder, al-Qaida linked militants have already seized control of entire towns in southern Yemen beyond their traditional strongholds.

Saleh, who has clung to power despite nearly eight months of protests and the June 3 assassination attempt, abruptly returned to Yemen on Friday.

Street battles that reignited a week earlier in Sanaa rapidly escalated, widening to include the most determined attack by Saleh's forces on al-Ahmar's military units, anti-government tribesmen and the unarmed protesters themselves.

Regime forces on Saturday pounded the protest camp in Sanaa's Change Square where thousands were massed, as they have been nearly daily since February in peaceful protests demanding the end of Saleh's 33-year rule.

Mortar shells blasted in the square, setting a number of tents on fire. Snipers on nearby rooftops fired down methodically on protesters dashing for cover.

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