By Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam
SANAA, May 2, 2011 (Reuters) - Yemeni activists urged street protesters on Monday not to raise banners of Osama bin Laden to avoid inviting a harsher crackdown on demonstrations seeking democratic change in the al Qaeda leader's ancestral homeland.
Bin Laden was killed in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan on Sunday, ending a nearly 10-year worldwide manhunt for the leader of the global Islamist militant network that orchestrated the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Tens of thousands of Yemeni protesters have camped out for three months in public squares across the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state to demand the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled autocratically for nearly 33 years and has long been a U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda.
"We expect Saleh's regime to work to use al Qaeda as evidence to confront the protests demanding his departure, but we will expose attempts like this," said Meshaal Mujahid, an activist. Another protester said he hoped the death of bin Laden would not detract from the mission of protesters.
"We are not working with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. We have one cause and it is the fall of the regime. This is what matters to us," said Mohammed Saad, a protester in Sanaa. "To those in the protest squares across the governorates of the republic: Do not get absorbed by the matter of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden," Yemeni protest organizers advised followers in a message on Facebook.
"Do not raise pictures or banners or mention bin Laden, as the (Yemeni) regime is planning now to exploit this issue for its interests," it added, urging recipients to spread the word.
Western and Gulf allies of Yemen have tried but so far failed to mediate an end to its political crisis, which they fear could trigger chaos that would give more room for an active Yemen-based regional arm of al Qaeda to operate.
Saleh has portrayed himself to Western and Gulf allies as his country's only effective bulwark against al Qaeda. But diplomats say Saleh's record of repressive and corrupt rule has increasingly made him a liability rather than asset for allies.
The Yemeni government, which has struggled to contain al Qaeda within its borders, welcomed the operation that killed bin Laden, and said it hoped for more targeted measures to "end terrorism throughout the world."
But Saleh's sway over Yemen, long shaky in remote provinces where al Qaeda is most active, has weakened further as protests have gathered steam, with security forces and officials deserting large swathes of several provinces.
A Gulf-mediated deal to ease out Saleh and defuse Yemen's political stalemate looked doomed after he refused to sign on Saturday, increasing the threat of instability in the country.
"Saleh keeps playing these games about resigning, but now that bin Laden is dead, there is a chance that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will ramp up its activities, which Saleh will use as an excuse to say that they need him to stay on," Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik said.
The Gulf pact, which had offered immunity from prosecution to Saleh and his family and aides, would have made him the third ruler ousted by a tide of pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world.
Yemen's opposition has said it still hopes Gulf states will succeed in securing Saleh's signature. Both Saleh and the opposition, which includes both Islamists and leftists, had agreed the deal in principle.
In more violence, four Yemeni soldiers and two gunmen were killed on Monday in clashes between tribesmen and soldiers in Yafie in the southern province of Lahej, where separatists are active, residents said. Some homes were damaged by gunfire.
Violence has escalated recently in southern Yemen, where analysts say the government, which has been trying to contain separatists in the south and Shi'ite rebels in the north, fears secessionists may also be trying to take advantage of the leadership crisis to renew a push for separation.