Living conditions deteriorate as Yemen impasse deepens

SANAA Fri Jun 24, 2011 2:53pm BST

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz June 24, 2011. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz June 24, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

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SANAA (Reuters) - Clutching a textbook, Saleh al-Kawkabani struggled to concentrate on preparing for his high school exams, which in Yemen begin next week.

"In the morning, we wake up to the sound of gunfire and at night, it is scary pitch dark without electricity. And then you expect me to study?" the 18-year-old student said, sitting on the pavement near his house in the capital Sanaa.

Months of protests by hundreds of thousands of Yemenis demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down after 33 years in power have taken their toll on the infrastructure and public services of the impoverished state.

The fate of Saleh, who is recovering from a surgery in Saudi Arabia after an attack on his palace earlier this month, is at the centre of a political crisis that has paralysed the Arabian Peninsula state and threatened to tip it into civil war.

Long inadequate health, education and sanitation services were dealt a further blow in mid-March when tribesmen blew up a major oil pipeline feeding crude to the country's main oil refinery in the southern city of Aden, causing severe fuel shortages, straining electricity output and reducing water supplies.

This, in turn, has sent prices of basic commodities such as bread and gasoline soaring, wreaking havoc on hospitals, forcing small factories to close and making it difficult for some 600,000 school students to prepare for state exams.

Long queues, sometimes stretching for miles, have been forming at gas stations across the country. People often wait for hours, even days, to fill up with petrol or buy diesel for private generators, in high demand in the sweltering heat of the Arabian Peninsula, where temperatures can reach 45 degrees.

"I stood in front of a gas station for nine hours, from 1 o'clock in the afternoon to 10 P.M., and I managed to get 40 litres of petrol only," said Yahya al-Matari, a taxi driver in Sanaa.

Ammar Salah, who works at a barbershop, said his boss used to pay 1,000 Yemeni rials ($4.2) for 20 litres of diesel -- a standard rate -- but now he was forced to pay up to 7,000 rials on the black market.

"This is crazy," he added.

Residents say the price of a loaf of a common Yemeni bread has doubled to 20 rials and wholewheat bread has gone up to 40 rials from 20.

"Prices for all commodities have increased, so why shouldn't the price of bread go up?" asked Taher Sagan, a baker in the Red Sea port city of Hudaida, drenched in sweat. "If we don't raise prices, we will have to close down."

SABOTAGE

The arrival of the first shipment of some 3 million barrels of crude donated by Saudi Arabia to Yemen has raised hopes that the crisis may ease soon.

But the situation across Yemen remains tense. Demonstrators in Sanaa and other cities are still camping out in city centres to press for Saleh's departure.

The government has blamed the pipeline blast on tribesmen associated with opposition groups demanding Saleh's ouster but tribal sources say relatives of a Yemeni mediator, who was killed by mistake in an airstrike targeting al Qaeda last year, were to blame.

The pipeline had repeatedly been bombed by disgruntled tribesmen in the past and the authorities rushed to repair it before any fuel shortages began to bite.

But this time, armed tribesmen blocked workers sent to fix it, officials said, adding any future repairs depended on an agreement between the government and the opposition, which is nowhere in sight.

Government officials said the pipeline bombing had also disrupted the export of some 120,000 barrels of oil per day from the country's central Maarib province, a key source of foreign currency. They estimated around $1 billion has been lost in the three months since the blast.

"Yemen loses around $10 million a day due to the production and export stoppage since mid-March," the official told Reuters.

Both the Yemeni government and the opposition have turned the country's economic woes into another battle ground, with opposition Websites sometimes blaming the government for deaths of newborn babies and patients in intensive care (ICU).

"These are crises created by the regime as a collective punishment for the Yemeni people for rejecting it (the regime)," a statement by a coalition of opposition parties said.

Tareq al-Shami, a spokesman for the ruling General People's Congress accused the opposition coalition of "trying to stir up the public to create public anger at the government."

In Sanaa, gunmen from the powerful Hashed tribal federation, who had fought street battles with Saleh's government forces before the president was wounded, remain on the streets despite a cease-fire brokered by Saudi Arabia, which is still in force.

Residents also complain of frequent gunfire and the sound of explosions in the capital, though no casualties or damage have been reported, where nearly a third of the city's 2.5 million inhabitants have fled to safer places in the countryside.

Standing in a small queue of women waiting to buy bread in the Red Sea port Hudaida, Umm Mohammed criticised the government and the opposition.

"What's this crisis? They should solve the problem, otherwise they both should leave," she added.

(Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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