SANAA (Reuters) - Protests against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh spread across Yemen on Wednesday with hundreds of people taking to the streets of Sanaa, Aden and Taiz.
In the capital Sanaa, at least 800 protesters marched through the streets near Sanaa University despite police efforts to break up the demonstration.
“We’re no weaker than Tunisians and Egyptians, and our situation is worse than theirs,” said Rafea Abdullah, a Sanaa University student, referring to the “people power” revolts that ousted the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia over the last month.
Saleh, a U.S. ally against al Qaeda, has ruled the poor and fractious Arabian Peninsula State for more than 30 years.
The threat of turmoil in Yemen, struggling to quash a resurgent wing of al Qaeda and keep rebellions at bay in its north and south, pushed Saleh to say he would step down in 2013 and call for a national dialogue, that the opposition accepted.
But anti-government protests have continued for the past six days, despite often violent clashes with government loyalists.
Police in Sanaa had earlier on Wednesday been unable to block hundreds of government loyalists wielding batons and daggers from beating and chasing off protesters and journalists at the university, which has become a launchpad for protests. A Reuters journalist saw four people wounded in the melee.
After locking student protesters inside the campus, police fired shots in the air to break up the loyalist groups, who were picked up by luxury cars which sped away, a Reuters reporter said. Students later left the campus to join hundreds of anti-government protesters in the streets.
At least 500 people rallied in the agro-industrial city Taiz, south of Sanaa, and 500 or more protesters had gathered in the southern port town of Aden.
“No more marginalization of the people of Aden! No more corruption and oppression,” chanted protesters there. Most demonstrators were from among the unemployed youth in Yemen, where the jobless rate is at least 35 percent.
Of the 23 million people in Yemen, which is teetering on the brink of collapse into a failed state, 40 percent live on less than $2 a day and a third suffer chronic hunger. Jobs are scarce, corruption is rife, and the population is expanding rapidly as oil and water resources are drying up.
Protests over the past week have been smaller than in preceding weeks, when tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, but demonstrators have become more strident in calling for Saleh’s resignation.
Analysts say protests could reach a tipping point because they are more spontaneous and youth-led, instead of run by the opposition, which works within the existing political framework and has called for reform, not for Saleh’s resignation.
Yemen’s opposition has agreed to negotiate with Saleh, but many young student protesters are becoming frustrated.
“We’ll keep protesting until the regime leaves,” said Murad Mohammed. “We have no future under current conditions.”
Analysts say any uprising in Yemen — which neighbors Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter — could unfold more slowly than in Egypt and Tunisia and with more bloodshed in a country where one in two people own guns.
“It’s an escalation, but this country is armed to the teeth. When people get fed up enough that they escalate it to sticks, the next step is probably Molotov cocktails, then weapons,” said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Dubai-based INEGMA group. “We’re getting close to a tipping point.”
Elsewhere in Sanaa, dozens of journalists rallied outside the journalist union, protesting against what they said were targeted attacks against them for covering the demonstrations.
In southern Aden, thousands of workers at different companies protested against what they said were poor working conditions and low pay. Scattered protests led by the unemployed were also breaking out in Aden, a Reuters correspondent said.
“Protest, protest until the regime falls!” they shouted.
Saleh on Sunday canceled a trip to Washington planned for later this month, which the state news agency said was due to regional conditions.
On Tuesday, Saba news reported Saleh would open his office to Yemenis who wanted to air their grievances.
But in another sign dissent may grow, the leader of a northern Shi’ite rebel group Abdel Malek al-Houthi issued a statement encouraging protesters.
“Yemenis should take advantage of this opportunity and create serious mobilization ... which will be responsible for changing the reality and removing this criminal government.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Janet Lawrence