SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Yemen's opposition rejected the president's offer of a unity government on Monday, saying it would stand with the tens of thousands of protesters demanding an end to his 32-year rule.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally against al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, has been struggling to quell daily protests that have swept across the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, leaving 24 people dead in the past two weeks.
On Monday, demonstrators gathered across the country, from the capital Sanaa to disparate regions where separatists or Shi'ite rebels hold sway, chanting slogans such as "No dialogue, no dialogue. You leaving is the only option."
Violence increased against security forces in the south. Local officials said gunmen killed two soldiers in successive attacks, and a prison riot killed one inmate and wounded two guards as four prisoners escaped.
Saleh has tried to rally support from key tribal groups and military leaders. At a meeting with religious leaders, he expressed willingness to form a unity government and said Yemen would split up if the opposition came to power.
"They would not be able to rule for even one week ... Yemen would be divided ... into four pieces by those who are riding the wave of stupidity," Saleh said, quoted by state media.
The opposition, planning country-wide "Day of Rage" protests on Tuesday, rejected the unity government offer.
"The opposition decided to stand with the people's demand for the fall of the regime, and there is no going back from that," said Mohammed al-Sabry, a spokesman for Yemen's umbrella opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Party.
ACTIVISTS GAIN SUPPORT
Opposition to Saleh has gained steam as students and activists have taken to the streets since January, galvanized by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The activist movement regained support last week from the traditional political opposition, which dropped planned talks with Saleh. On Monday, the Sanaa protesters' ranks swelled as tribesmen and Islamist groups joined the rallies.
"It seems that within some tribal circles there are elements who think Saleh's days are numbered and they would be better pinning their colors to a different mast," said Philip McCrum, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Yemen is already teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state -- one in two people own guns, 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day and a third face chronic hunger.
In Sanaa, where the government exerts the most control, around 5,000 protesters camped out in front of Sanaa University, shouting anti-Saleh slogans in the morning and chewing narcotic qat leaves in their tents and singing nationalist songs in the afternoon. They have been there for over a week.
"The president has made a lot of promises and he has not delivered. We are desperate," said Ahmed al-Muwallad, an unemployed graduate of a university pharmaceutical program.
Naji al-Anisi, 19, is a soldier in the army but joined protesters camped out at Sanaa University a week ago.
"I eat two meals a day, just yoghurt and bread. But it's OK if it leads to freedom from this regime."
Security forces set up road blocks around the protest camp in Sanaa to frisk those seeking to join the sit-in. Police were trying to choke off supplies of food to protesters.
Police also blocked around 1,000 protesters leaving Taiz for Aden, site of the fiercest clashes with police.
Around 10,000 protesters continued a two-week camp out in Taiz, 200 km (125 miles) south of the capital, while thousands rallied in the northern cities of Ibb and Hudeida. A sit-in by a few thousand people in Aden was peaceful, a Reuters witness said.
But unrest remains high in the south. A local official said two soldiers were killed and 11 wounded in attacks by armed men in the flashpoint Abyan province. The official blamed al Qaeda.
In further turmoil, a prison riot broke out in the southern province of Mahra, near the border with Oman, on Sunday. One inmate was killed in clashes with police. Four prisoners escaped and two guards suffered burns.