Pro-Saleh rallies vie with opposition for Yemeni support

Weeks of protests across Yemen have brought Saleh`s 32-year rule to the verge of collapse.

Updated: Apr 01, 2011, 19:01 PM IST

Sanaa: Tens of thousands of protesters, both for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, took to the streets of Yemen`s capital on Friday in a bid to draw the larger crowd as both sides struggle to revive talks to decide his fate.

Weeks of protests across Yemen have brought Saleh`s 32-year rule to the verge of collapse but the United States and neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia, an important financial backer, are worried about who might succeed him in a country where al Qaeda militants flourish.

Rallies attracted large numbers in Sanaa even before midday prayers, a time which has been a critical period for drawing crowds in protest movements that have swept across the region and unseated entrenched rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Out traitor, the Yemeni people are in revolt. We, the army and the police are united under oppression," anti-Saleh protesters shouted outside Sanaa University, where tens of thousands had gathered.

But tensions were high as equally large crowds came out in a show of support for Saleh in Sabyeen Square, about four km (2.5 miles) away. Hundreds of security forces were deployed at checkpoints across the city as tanks rolled through the streets.

Anti-Saleh protesters have named the day a "Friday of enough," while loyalists branded it a "Friday of brotherhood."

"We stand with the legality of the constitution, we`re against chaos and sabotage. And those collaborators (anti-Saleh protesters) want to turn Yemen into another Iraq," said Ahmed Shaker, a demonstrator at the pro-Saleh rally.

Talks stalled

A government official who helped organize the demonstration told Reuters the ruling party expected tens of thousands of supporters to arrive in the capital. Tens of cars and buses were driving into Sanaa filled with people waving Yemeni flags and pictures of Saleh, witnesses said.

Protests could easily spiral into violence in this turbulent state on the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula -- over half the population of 23 million own a gun. Some 82 people have been killed so far, including 52 shot by snipers on March 18.

Saleh is looking to stay on as president while new parliamentary and presidential elections are organized by the end of the year, an opposition source said to a news agenyc on Tuesday.

Talks over his exit have stalled and it is not yet clear how they can restart. Saudi authorities have deflected Yemeni government efforts to involve them in mediation.

Protesters who have camped outside Sanaa University since early February insist that Saleh, who has said he will not run for re-election when his term ends in 2013, should step down now.

Washington has long regarded Saleh as a bulwark of stability who can keep al Qaeda from extending its foothold in Yemen, a country which many see as close to disintegration.

Saleh has talked of civil war if he steps down without ensuring that power passes to "safe hands." He has warned against a coup after senior generals turned against him in the past week.

Opposition parties say they can handle the militant issue better than Saleh, who they say has made deals with militants in the past to avoid provoking Yemen`s Islamists.