Yemenis square off in rival ‘Day of Rage’ protests

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, center left, heads a meeting with members of Yemen's parliament in Sanaa on Wednesday. He told parliament that he will not seek another term in office or hand power to his son in an apparent reaction to protests in this impoverished nation that have been inspired by Tunisia's revolt and the turmoil in Egypt. (AP)

By MOHAMMED GHOBARI AND KHALED ABDULLAH | REUTERS

SANAA: Tens of thousands of Yemenis squared off in street protests for and against the government on Thursday during an opposition-led “Day of Rage,” a day after President Ali Abdullah Saleh offered to step down in 2013.

By early morning, anti-government activists drew more than 20,000 in Sanaa, the biggest crowd since a wave of protests hit the Arabian Peninsula state two weeks ago inspired by demonstrations that toppled Tunisia’s ruler and threaten Egypt’s president.

But an equally large pro-Saleh protest was also gathering steam, and supporters of the president who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades were driving around the capital urging Yemenis over loudspeakers to join their counterdemonstrations.

“The people want regime change,” anti-government protesters shouted as they gathered near Sanaa University, a main rallying point. “No to corruption, no to dictatorship.”

Saleh, eyeing the unrest spreading in the Arab world, indicated on Wednesday he would leave office when his term ends in 2013, and promised his son would not take over the reins of government, among a host of other political concessions.

It was Saleh’s boldest gambit yet to stave off turmoil in Yemen, a key ally of Washington against Al-Qaeda, as he sought to avert a showdown with the opposition that might risk sparking an Egypt-style uprising in the deeply impoverished state.

The stakes are high for Yemen, on the brink of becoming a failed state, as it tries to fight a resurgent Al-Qaeda wing, quell southern separatism, and cement peace with Shiite rebels in the north, all in the face of crushing poverty.

Yemen’s biggest opposition party, the Islamist Islah, welcomed Saleh’s initiative but snubbed a presidential appeal to call off protests. Yet anti-government protesters appeared to lack consensus, with some calling for Saleh to get out while others wanted him to prove he would act on his promises.

“What the president offered yesterday was just theater, I don’t trust him,” a protester, Mahmoud Abdullah, said in Sanaa.

 

Protests across Yemen

Saleh, a shrewd political survivor, has backed out of previous promises to step aside. Analysts say Wednesday’s pledge could be a genuine way to exit gracefully but he may also hope to wait out regional unrest and reassert dominance another day.

Further anti-government protests spread across Yemen, including in the town of Taiz, where Saleh once served as military governor, as well as in flashpoint southern towns where a separatist movement has grown increasingly active.

Security forces in the southern city of Aden blocked anti-government protesters from entering the city center where a few thousands demonstrators had gathered. A Reuters witness said hundreds of security men had deployed across the city.

At pro-government protests in Sanaa, demonstrators voiced support for the president, saying he had met opposition demands. Supporters were bussed in to join the protests, a Reuters witness said.

“Yes to the president. No to chaos. Yes to stability,” pro-government protesters shouted. “With our blood and soul we sacrifice for you, Ali.”

The United States relies heavily on Saleh to help combat Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based arm which also targets neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter. Instability in Yemen would present serious political and security risks for Gulf states.

US President Barack Obama telephoned Saleh to express support for his initiative, the state news agency Saba said.

Among the concessions Saleh offered was an invitation to the opposition to join a unity government. Saleh also promised to delay parliamentary elections due in April to conduct reforms to persuade the opposition the vote will be fair.

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