SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni police opened fire on demonstrators led by Shiite rebels who were marching toward the prime minister's office in the capital on Tuesday, killing at least four people and wounding 10, officials said.
Police first fired tear gas then switched to live ammo at the rally, led by so-called Hawthi rebels who have been fighting against Sunni tribesmen in the country's north over the past months and now want to topple the government.
The protests threaten to further destabilize volatile Yemen, the Arab world's most impoverished country where authorities continue to battle militants led by the country's local branch of al-Qaida, which the U.S. consider to be the world's most dangerous offshoot of the terror group.
As the march turned bloody in Sanaa, suspected al-Qaida militants including suicide bombers attacked army checkpoints in the south, killing three soldiers and losing 10 of their own forces, some of whom died when a Yemeni warplane bombed their explosives-laden vehicle, security officials said.
At the Sanaa rally, medical officials said four people died. Witnesses at the scene said at least 10 were wounded by gunshots while several others were injured in a stampede that erupted after the shooting, as the protesters tried to get away from the scene.
All officials and witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Tensions have been escalating in the Yemeni capital, where the Hawthis have staged weekslong anti-government demonstrations, often clashing with the police forces and demanding that the government reinstate fuel subsidies and then resign.
Negotiations have failed to diffuse the standoff and the Hawthis have kept up their rallies, camping out in the heart of Sanaa. On Sunday, one person died in clashes with police as they tried to disperse protesters who had blocked Sanaa's airport road.
The Hawthis had waged a six-year insurgency in the north against former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which officially ended in 2010. After Saleh's ouster, they have fought ultraconservative Sunni Islamists in several northern cities and towns, accusing them of turning their strongholds into incubators of extremism.
Over the past weeks, Saleh's supporters joined the Hawthis. Critics accuse Saleh of trying to use the protests to undermine his successor's authority.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi last week dismissed his Cabinet and promised to appoint a new premier within a week in a move to offer concessions, but the Hawthis only escalated their protests.
The violence in Sanaa prompted neighboring Saudi Arabia — a Sunni kingdom long at odds with the Hawthis — to evacuate its embassy over the past two days and suspend flights to Yemen. Earlier this year, the kingdom listed the Hawthis as a terrorist group.
In 2009, while backing the former Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia unleashed a heavy offensive against the Hawthis after an incident in which the Shiite rebels crossed into the kingdom and killed a Saudi soldier.