Friday, April 22, 2011

Vast crowds rally in Yemen for and against Saleh

By Mohamed Sudam and Mohammed Ghobari

Apr 22, 2011

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemenis flooded the streets of Sanaa and Taiz on Friday in rival demonstrations for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who gave a guarded welcome to a Gulf Arab plan for a three-month transition of power.

He told supporters in Sanaa any arrangements had to be "within the framework of the Yemen constitution" -- language which could mask objections to the plan -- and also vowed to "confront challenge with challenge," but without bloodshed.

Riot police fired in the air in the southern city of Taiz to try to keep vast, unruly crowds of pro and anti-Saleh demonstrators apart, witnesses said. Ambulance sirens could be heard, but there was no immediate word on casualties.

A sea of anti-Saleh protesters, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, inundated the streets of Taiz, Yemen's third city and an epicenter of opposition to the 69-year-old president.

Tens of thousands of Saleh loyalists turned out in Sanaa, the capital, for what they called a "Friday of Reconciliation," waving Yemeni flags and pictures of the president.

Their numbers were matched by protesters demanding Saleh's immediate departure, spilling out of their usual protest area around Sanaa University to mark a "Last Chance Friday" in nearby Siteen Street, where there was a heavy security presence.

That raised concern that Saleh's security forces and republican guards might clash with troops loyal to renegade general Ali Mohsen, protecting the protesters in Sanaa.

Demonstrators voiced skepticism about the latest Gulf plan aimed at halting Yemen's descent into more violence and chaos.

The proposal of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) calls for Saleh to hand power to his vice president one month after signing an agreement. He would appoint an opposition leader to lead an interim cabinet tasked with preparing for presidential elections two months later, a Yemeni official said.


The plan, presented on Thursday, also gives immunity from prosecution to Saleh, his family and aides -- anathema to his foes, who would also have to end protests under the proposal.

"We won't depend on any initiative that doesn't demand that this man leaves right away," said protester Manea Abdullah. "We are sticking to the demands of the revolution for an immediate departure and prosecution of those who killed our comrades."

Saleh's long-time Gulf and Western allies, concerned that chaos in Yemen will open more opportunities for ambitious al Qaeda militants, are trying to broker an orderly transition after three months of protests against Saleh's 32-year rule.

While organized opposition parties may still be ready to do a deal, many protesters do not trust Saleh to implement it.

"This guy is a liar, we won't believe anything even if the opposition accepts the Gulf initiative," said Abdulnasser Ahmed.

"Every time he agrees to something, then backs off. We know his ways and so does the rest of the world. That's why the world should support our demands that he go."

In the lawless eastern province of Maarib, a local official said two soldiers were killed and two were wounded in an ambush, which he said was mounted by pro-opposition tribesmen.

The toll in a separate overnight clash between soldiers and militants in the southern province of Lahej rose to five soldiers killed and three wounded, a local official said. Two militants were also killed.

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