July 22, 2005

Yemen braces for more protests after fuel hike

By Mohamed Sudam

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni security forces backed by tanks
surrounded mosques and government buildings on Friday to try to
thwart fresh protests after two days of riots over fuel price
hikes killed more than 20 people.

The increase, which went into effect on Wednesday, set off
the country's worst riots since 1998 and drew fire from
opposition parties and a leading cleric.

In his Friday sermon, Grand Mosque preacher Sheikh Akram
al-Rukaihi, said the government should have battled widespread
corruption before increasing fuel prices and affecting the
country's already impoverished people.

"We must crack down on corruption which has grown to
monstrous proportions, for bellies have become bloated with
public funds," he said, echoing critics' calls for the
government to cut its budget deficit by ending misuse of public

But he also criticized the thousands of Yemenis who went on
the rampage on Wednesday and Thursday, clashing with police and
torching public buildings to protest the increase.

"No religion or logic or legislation allows an individual
to carry on like this ... This is not Islam," Rukaihi said.

Analysts said the protests were unlikely to rattle
long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- a U.S. ally in the
war on terrorism -- who has weathered worse storms in the past,
including a civil war.

Security officials said 24 people were killed in two days
of protests, the heaviest toll since 1998 when 34 people died
in two weeks of demonstrations against fuel and food price

The protesters smashed and torched government offices,
shops and cars. On Thursday, they stormed an oil facility in
the Red Sea city of Houdeida but were shot at by riot police.

Witnesses said the violence appeared to have eased off on


Opposition parties had said they held the government
responsible for the violence and urged it to reconsider the
fuel price hike.

Analysts say the government is unlikely to reverse the rise
but could reduce it to appease public anger.

Yemen, an oil-producer with declining resources, says the
fuel price rises are part of reforms backed by the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank launched in 1995 to
prevent economic collapse.

The government said on Tuesday it would offset the increase
by cutting custom tariffs, raising state salaries and reducing
a planned general sales tax from 10 percent to 5.

In Washington, the IMF said the elimination of fuel
subsidies was one of a set of tough measures the government had
taken to adapt to the expected decline in oil output.

The IMF said it had also pressed the Yemeni authorities to
increase the coverage of a social welfare fund that distributes
cash subsidies to impoverished families.

According to World Bank figures, more than 42 percent of
Yemen's 19 million people live below the poverty line,
illiteracy is around 50 percent and unemployment is more than
20 percent. The population is expected to double in 20 years.

International donors have warned that these factors may
overwhelm Yemen. They say the situation requires restructuring
of the bloated public sector, ending corruption and promoting
rule of law to woo investors.