SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters Tuesday, killing at least three amid rising international concern over the strategically located nation.
The United Nations Security Council met late Tuesday for a first-ever briefing and discussion about the deteriorating situation in Yemen, where rights groups say two months of protests calling for the president to step down have claimed 120 lives.
But the U.N.’s most powerful body couldn’t agree on a statement proposed by Lebanon and Germany expressing concern at the political crisis, calling on the parties “to exercise restraint and to enter into a comprehensive dialogue to realize the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people,” and supporting the mediation role of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Security Council met as a Yemeni government delegation headed to nearby Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, for talks with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council over a proposal for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to transfer power to his deputy to end the crisis. The opposition held similar talks in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters after the closed Security Council meeting that “there were several delegations that wanted instruction from [their] capitals.” Other council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private, identified the countries as Russia and China.
Rice said “several themes emerged, including a call for restraint and an end to the violence” and concerns that the events in Yemen not only have implications for the country’s security and stability but for regional and international peace and security. Diplomats said some members raised al-Qaida and piracy in this discussion.
The country’s opposition, inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, says nothing short of Saleh’s immediate departure would end the unrest.
Strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea across from lawless Somalia, Yemen is wracked by rebellions, water and food shortages and hosts a deadly local affiliate of the militant al-Qaida network.
Tens of thousands took to the streets in the capital Sanaa and thousands demonstrated in Aden, Ibb, al-Hudaydah, Taiz and other cities where most of the shops were closed in support of the protesters.
The Sanaa protest turned violent when security forces opened fire, lobbed tear gas canisters, and stun grenades at the protesters as they tried to make their way to the capital’s main thoroughfare. The protesters replied by throwing stones.
A medical official and an eyewitness said at least two protesters were killed, and five were in serious condition. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Khaled al-Ansi, a protest organizer, said around 60 were injured by bullets or sharp objects. A number of those injured were policemen who joined the protesters, witnesses said.
An ambulance accompanying the protesters, carrying four female doctors, was seized by security forces and was taken away. Al-Ansi threatened that if the ambulance and the doctors are not released, the protesters would storm the riot police’s headquarters.
Thousands of protesters also marched in the southern city of Taiz, a hotbed of anti-government activism, demanding the president’s resignation when security forces opened fire.
The director of a city field hospital, Dr. Sadeq al-Shuja, said at least one was killed in the crackdown. Protesters also gathered outside a security office, where seven of their colleagues have been detained, demanding their release.
Four other protesters were killed in demonstrations in Taiz earlier this month.
The U.N. Security Council briefing, by U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe, was requested by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
“We are very concerned about the situation in Yemen,” German Ambassador Peter Wittig said as he headed into the meeting. Wittig said the council’s discussion “sends out a good signal” and “supports the efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council to alleviate the tensions and find a solution to the Yemeni crisis.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the U.N.’s interest in Yemen and called on it to urge Saleh to stop the killings of peaceful protesters.
“Yemen’s brutal repression of opposition activists over the last few weeks finally landed on the radar of the Security Council, which clearly sees the issue as a threat to international peace and security,” said Philippe Bolopion, U.N. director for Human Rights Watch.
The U.N. children’s fund said Tuesday that at least 26 children have been killed during the protests over the last two months. Most died of wounds from live ammunition during clashes between security forces and anti-government demonstrators, said UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and protesters are calling for steps to improve livelihoods and open up the country’s restricted political life. The protests are the biggest direct challenge to Saleh’s three decades in power. His weak government has little control beyond the capital and has struggled to confront an armed rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.
AP writers Edith M. Lederer and Anita Snow contributed to this report from the U.N.