Friday, April 1, 2011

Rival rallies add heat to Yemeni standoff


April 02, 2011

HUGE rival protests split Yemen's capital last night as security forces deployed in unprecedented strength for another Friday showdown on the streets between President Ali Abdullah Saleh's backers and foes.

"I pledge . . . to sacrifice myself for the people, with my blood and with everything I hold dear," Mr Saleh told the crowd in Sabine Square, near his palace in Sanaa.

Despite fears of an outbreak of violence, tens of thousands of pro-regime supporters waving flags and banners packed squares around Sanaa, passing through checkpoints set up by security forces kitted with guns and batons. Tanks and armoured cars were stationed at the city's entry points.

The army, many of whose officers have rallied with the pro-democracy camp led by youths, controlled access to the "Change Square" renamed by anti-regime protesters holding a sit-in near Sana'a University.

The demonstrators, who also numbered tens of thousands on the weekly day of prayers and rest, have set up camp there since February, but appeared to have been put on the back foot last night.

Talks between Mr Saleh and opponents, who want him to resign, have reached a stalemate over his demand for a guarantee that his relatives won't be shut out of the military and politics after he quits. In the past 10 days, amid acrimonious talks, the President has rejected at least seven deals offered in hopes of heading off a civil war in the strategically important Arab country.

Mr Saleh, who has ruled uncontested for three decades, and his close relatives hold virtually all levers of power in Yemen. Mr Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, commands the US-funded and trained Republican Guard, and two nephews, Yahya and Ammar, head the internal security forces and another elite counter-terrorism unit. The three men are the leading counter-terrorism liaisons for the US. At least half a dozen other family members control other military commands.

Soldiers who have defected to the opposition have faced off for days in Sanaa against troops still loyal to the government.

"Saleh must leave while he still has a chance . . . He needs to know that we will not bear any more of his games," said Nasr Ahmed, a senior official in the Joint Meetings Party, an umbrella group of political opposition parties.

Mr Saleh said last week in a televised address that he would give up power only to responsible individuals.

He has also criticised the opposition leaders and Major General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, whose defection with other military officials on March 21 revived the flagging protest movement.

Some opposition leaders said they believed their dedication to a negotiated solution had backfired. They see Mr Saleh gaining leverage in talks because he knows the opposition is reluctant to use force against him.

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