Anti-government demonstrators in south Yemen are threatening to burn down schools if teachers and students do not join their protests in the port city of Aden, the U.N. children's fund UNICEF said on Tuesday.
Daily protests have swept Yemen for over a month, as tens of thousands of demonstrators demand the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule over the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.
"Yesterday's confirmed reports ... tell of a number of schools in al-Mansoura and al-Mualla (districts in Aden) being attacked by demonstrators," UNICEF said in a statement.
"Reportedly, children and teachers were threatened and told if they would not leave the schools and join the protest, they (the schools) would be burnt down. Gun shots were heard in the area."
UNICEF communications officer Mohammed Al Asaadi, who is based in Sanaa, told Reuters he knew of two schools being threatened and said many children in Aden were now being kept at home by their parents.
"Some schools were already closed down because parents did not want their kids to go to school in anticipation of violence or attacks on schools," he said, speaking by phone.
The reported threats on schools were the first of their kind since unrest hit Yemen in January, with protesters galvanised by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
But schools have been targeted in previous disturbances in Yemen. Last May, UNICEF reported that gunmen had seized schools in north Yemen despite an uneasy truce between Shi'ite Muslim rebels and the government.
Saleh, a U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, was struggling to maintain stability even before the latest protests broke out. He has been trying to sustain a cease-fire with northern rebels while also seeking to curb a secessionist rebellion in the south.
In Aden, once the capital of an independent southern state, several children have been wounded and killed in this year's troubles, Asaadi said. In all, an estimated 27 people have died across Yemen in the protests.
"UNICEF is concerned about the safety of these children and their access to basic rights such as education and health services," he said.
(Writing by Erika Solomon; editing by Crispian Balmer and Sonya Hepinstall)