A massive demonstration against Yemen's government turned into a killing field Friday as snipers on rooftops fired down on protesters and police made a wall of fire with tires and gasoline, blocking a key escape route.
At least 46 people died, including some children
, in an attack that marked a new level of brutality in President Ali Abdullah Saleh's crackdown on dissent. Medical officials and witnesses said hundreds were wounded.
Saleh, struggling to maintain his 32-year grip on power in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, said the deaths had occurred in clashes between demonstrators and other citizens at a protest encampment at Sanaa University.
"I express my extreme sorrow for what happened today after Friday prayers in the university district," Saleh told a news conference in Sanaa, blaming gunmen among the protesters for the violence.
"The police were not present and did not open fire," he said. "It is clear there are armed elements inside these tents and they are the ones who opened fire."
The dramatic escalation in violence suggested Saleh was growing more fearful that the unprecedented street protests over the past month could unravel his grip on power. The United States, which has long relied on Saleh for help fighting terrorism, condemned the violence.
The bloodshed, however, failed to dislodge protesters from a large traffic circle they have dubbed "Taghyir Square" — Arabic for "Change." Hours after the shooting, thousands demanding Saleh's ouster stood their ground, many of them hurling stones at security troops and braving live fire and tear gas.
They stormed several buildings where the snipers had taken position, dragging out 10 people — including some the protesters claimed were paid thugs. They said the men would be handed over to judicial authorities.
The protest in the capital, Sanaa, drew tens of thousands, the largest crowd yet in Yemen's uprising. It began peacefully. A military helicopter flew low over the square just as protesters were arriving after the main Muslim prayer services of the week.