SANAA (Reuters) - 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.
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 also picked up steam, and supporters of the president who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades drove around the capital urging Yemenis over loudspeakers to join their counter-demonstrations.
The protests in Sanaa fizzled out by midday, with demonstrators on both sides dispersing peacefully ahead of a traditional afternoon break to chew qat, a mild stimulant leaf widely consumed in Yemen.
“The people want regime change,” anti-government protesters had 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 that 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 Shi’ite rebels in the north.
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 theatre, 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.
Yemen’s opposition coalition said it wanted assurances that reforms would be implemented, and demanded better living conditions for Yemenis, about 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day while a third suffer from chronic hunger.
“They’re just starting to find their voice and they’re angry about a whole multitude of issues. Yemenis are angry about their situation there, but they haven’t reached the level that they have in Egypt,” said Barak Barfi, Research Fellow for New America Foundation.
Further anti-government protests were seen 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.
A protest in Aden ended abruptly, as security forces in the southern city used tear gas to disperse demonstrators in front of a local government building and two people were wounded in ensuing scuffles with police. A Reuters witness said hundreds of security men had deployed across the city, arresting seven.
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.”
Operations at Yemen LNG, a Total-led liquified natural gas plant, have not been impacted by the protests, the company’s general manager told Reuters.
The United States relies heavily on Saleh to help combat al Qaeda’s Yemen-based arm which also targets neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter. Instability in Yemen would present serious political and security risks for Gulf states.
U.S. 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.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Dubai; Writing by Erika Solomon and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Matthew Jones
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