Saleh hails backers as huge demos split Sanaa

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SANAA – Huge rival protests split Yemen’s capital 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,” Saleh said, thanking his supporters inside and outside Yemen in the face of two months of escalating protests calling for his ouster. 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.
Convoys of cars flying the Yemeni flag earlier poured into the capital from the surrounding countryside for the pro-Saleh rally. “The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh,” they chanted. In a deeply tribal society, many of the demonstrators carried large portraits of the 69-year-old president in tribal headdress rather than his customary suit and tie.
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 near Sanaa University. The demonstrators, who also numbered tens of thousands on the weekly day of prayers and rest, have set up camp in the area since late February, but appeared to have been put on the back foot on Friday.
In Tahrir Square, about two kilometres (less than two miles) away, security forces channelled the influx of regime supporters, many of them tribesmen mobilised by the president, a former military man. After a spirited sermon and prayers, Saleh’s supporters trudged the four to five kilometre stretch to Sabiine Square, next to Saleh’s palace, and away from the rival protest, for the show of solidarity.
Saleh, who also showed up on a stage in Sabiine, vowed to defend the Yemeni people and hail their massive support, in a brief address to the crowds outside the presidential palace. “The crowds stretched as far as the eye could see,” an AFP correspondent said. “I hope their statements will be wise and not irresponsible,” he said, in apparent reference to calls from the opposition, which Saleh’s massive support base put on the back foot on Friday, for his palace to be overtaken.
Roads leading to the venues were blocked by security forces, with Sanaa roughly divided into a northern half held by the opposition camp and Saleh’s supporters packing the southern sector. On March 18, regime loyalists gunned down 52 demonstrators but amid fears of a repeat last Friday police kept rival demonstrators apart by firing warning shots in the air.
Since the bloodbath, which sparked widespread condemnation, the regime has been hit by a wave of defections, including among the ranks of the military which now has rival units deployed on the streets of Sanaa. The pro-democracy protesters, pressing for an end to Saleh’s three-decade rule, called off a planned march on the presidential palace on Friday for fear of renewed carnage.
“We don’t want a confrontation with the president’s supporters,” Adel al-Walibi, a leader of the protests, told AFP. Many of them would be “out-of-uniform soldiers and armed tribesmen”. He said the protesters would hold marches around the square and sit-ins outside key installations in the capital.
Britain on Thursday urged its remaining citizens to leave Yemen immediately “in light of the rapid deterioration in the security situation in Yemen … while commercial airlines are still flying.”