Rival Yemen demos set scene for tense Friday

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President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his opponents have set the scene for another tense Friday in a two-month-long showdown, with calls for rival demonstrations in the Yemeni capital.

State news agency Saba said tribal chiefs, clerics, civil society figures, youths and supporters from the countryside were streaming into Sanaa on Thursday in response to the longtime president's call for a show of solidarity.

His challengers, mainly youths camped out at a renamed "Change Square" near Sanaa University, have also urged demonstrators to take to the streets but put off a planned march on the presidential palace for fear of violence.

"We don't want a confrontation with the president's supporters. Many of his people tomorrow will be out-of-uniform soldiers and armed tribesmen," Adel al-Walibi, a leader of the protests, told AFP.

He said the protesters would hold marches around the square and sit-ins outside key installations in the Yemeni capital.

Around 20 new army officers on Thursday also joined the protesters, who carried banners calling for the "peaceful ouster" of the regime, an AFP correspondent said.

They called for a six-month transition period during which parliament would be dissolved, the constitution amended, and an interim committee tasked with running the country's affairs.

Defections from Saleh's regime have multiplied since a bloodbath in Sanaa on March 18 when 52 protesters were gunned down by Saleh loyalists, drawing widespread international condemnation.

South of Sanaa on Thursday, hundreds of thousands of people in Taez took to the streets to call for Saleh's ouster, organisers said, while tens of thousands of others rallied in another town, Ibb.

Gunmen also abducted two soldiers in Loder in the southern province of Abyan, a local official said. He said the kidnappers were members of Al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile Britain urged its citizens to leave Yemen immediately "while commercial airlines are still flying," saying any evacuation would be impossible if the situation deteriorated further.

"Given the situation on the ground, it is highly unlikely that the British government will be able to evacuate British nationals or provide consular assistance in the event of a further breakdown of law and order," a British Foreign Office statement said.

Saleh, who has been in power for more than three decades but faces mounting protests and defections, was boosted by a huge show of support in Sanaa last Friday, the weekly Muslim day of rest and prayers.

The president said in a speech to his supporters gathered in a Sanaa square that he would hand over power only to "safe hands," after a scathing verbal assault on anti-regime protesters.

In the southern province of Daleh, hundreds of people took part in a demonstration on Thursday to press for the independence of what was formerly known as South Yemen.

"Yes to independence and to freedom," they chanted. "Revolt, revolt, south."

Southerners complain of discrimination by Sanaa in distributing resources since north-south unification in 1990. The south broke away in 1994, sparking a brief civil war that ended with the region overrun by Saleh's troops.

Battling on several fronts, Saleh is a declared US ally in fighting Al-Qaeda, implanted in Yemen, the anti-regime protests which have divided the Yemeni army, the south's secessionist movement, and Shiite rebels in the north.

© 2011 AFP

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