SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of the capital on Friday in parallel protests — one demanding the country’s wounded leader surrender any claim to power, another calling him back home.
The rival demonstrations over the fate of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, forced abroad for surgery after an attack on his palace a week ago, highlighted the volatility of a country which Western nations and neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia fear could slip into chaos and give al Qaeda a regional foothold.
Thousands of anti-Saleh demonstrators filled Siteen Street in the heart of Sanaa demanding Saleh formally hand over power to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the acting president.
Near the presidential headquarters, a smaller group of Saleh supporters gathered after Friday prayers to urge his return to a country wracked by months of demonstrations demanding the president’s ouster and crackdowns aimed at suppressing dissent.
Saleh, Yemen’s ruler for three decades, has not been seen in public since being flown to Saudi Arabia for surgery following last Friday’s shelling attack on his palace.
U.S. officials have said Saleh, 69, was burned on 40 percent of his body — injuries which, depending on the depth of wounds, could be fatal and would probably curb his ability to govern.
But after months of factional violence and pro-democracy protests, he has resisted Western and Arab pressure to step down and government media dismissed dire assessments of Saleh’s condition, saying that preparations for his return were afoot.
Opposition figures said their main concern was for Saleh to transfer his powers, regardless of whether he returned.
Even before the protests, Yemen was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in its south, where a civil war erupted in 1994 after the unification of Saleh’s north with formerly independent South Yemen.
Saleh has also faced a Shi’ite insurgency in the north.
Earlier on Friday, suspected separatists attacked an army checkpoint on the outskirts of southern al-Habilayn in Lahj province, local officials said. Five soldiers and three suspected rebels died in the ensuing skirmish.
One woman was killed and two were injured when government planes attacked the town of Jaar in the southern province of Abyan, residents said. Islamist militants have seized the province’s capital, Zinjibar.
A ceasefire has held in Sanaa since Saleh left, after more than 200 people were killed and thousands fled over two weeks in clashes between his loyalists and the forces of tribal leader Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, who backs the protesters.
A group of opposition parties have told Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress party it would form its own transitional assembly in a week if he did not cede power.
Saleh has thrice backed out of deals to do so brokered by oil-rich Gulf neighbors.
A pro-Saleh website on Friday denied reports that members of his family — including a son who leads a key military unit — had fled to the United Arab Emirates. The website, “September 26,” called the reports “tales woven of imagination, lies and fraud.”
Many government ministries are not functioning as staff stay away and Sanaa is suffering from cuts in electricity, fuel and water supplies.
Yemen’s state news agency Saba said on Thursday the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was arranging humanitarian aid for 10,000 people fleeing Abyan after attacks from al Qaeda.
Saudi’s state news agency quoted a Yemeni Health Ministry official saying there could be as many as 20,000 Abyan refugees.
Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Dan Williams