Yemenis gathered for competing rallies in different parts of the capital, Sana’a, as the opposition demanded President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s immediate departure and tribesmen marched in his support.
Army defectors fired weapons into the air to prevent the pro-Saleh crowd from reaching Taghyeer Square, where the protesters were assembling. Loudspeakers broadcast appeals to the tribesmen to disobey any orders to attack the opposition.
Saleh spoke to his supporters, who filled another square near the presidential palace, telling them he is willing to quit if he finds “safe hands” for a transfer of power. Until then, “we will remain steadfast, with all the power that we have,” he said.
The protest movement has gained momentum since March 18, when police and snipers killed 46 protesters in the capital in the worst violence since the unrest began two months ago. Sheikh Sinan Abu Luhoom, leader of Yemen’s largest tribe, yesterday endorsed the movement, which had already secured the support of Saleh’s own tribal group, the Hashid, on March 20.
The Yemeni opposition today was distributing a draft of eight demands that includes Saleh’s immediate resignation, a new constitution based on a parliament chosen through a proportional electoral system, and politically neutral security and military institutions. They also seek the prosecution of those responsible for the March 18 bloodshed.
Dozens Reported Dead
A total of 83 protesters have been killed since March 12, Ezzedine el Asbahy, director of Yemen’s Human Rights Information Training Center, said today in Paris. Another 500 people were wounded in the same period, 200 of them seriously, he said.
Efforts to negotiate a compromise between Saleh and opposition leaders have stalled over how soon he should step down, said Mustapha Noman, Yemen’s ambassador to Spain, who has been in contact with both sides.
“The real difference is over the length of the transitional period,” he said in a phone interview from Madrid. “Is it going to be immediate or in three months, six months or the end of the year? This is the obstacle.” Saleh has already agreed to other opposition demands, including that his family members leave military and security posts, Noman said.
OMV AG, central Europe’s biggest oil company, is withdrawing all 60 of its expatriate staff in Yemen and has implemented travel restrictions. The Safer Export Pipeline in the country, which transports OMV oil, has yet to be repaired after being damaged in an explosion last week, Michaela Huber, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an e-mail today.
State of Emergency
Under Yemen’s state of emergency, the first since a 1994 civil war between the north and south, public gatherings are banned, the media is subject to restrictions, and the constitution suspended.
The U.S. has backed Saleh, a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, with $300 million a year of military and economic aid. Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said this week that the country needs “a government that is more responsive” to its people.
Dozens of lawmakers abandoned Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress to protest last week’s violence, joining a list of defectors that includes Cabinet ministers, diplomats, tribal leaders and senior military officers such as Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armored Division.
Six districts in the southeastern Shabwa province have fallen to tribes backing Saleh’s ouster, a security official at the office of provincial Governor Ali Hasan al-Ahmadi said yesterday. The districts are al-Saeed, Haban, Nisab, Maifaa, Markhah and al-Rawdhah.
The tribesmen have taken control of the security forces in the districts and their weapons, said the official, who requested anonymity over fear of reprisal.
Yemen’s conflict with Shiite Muslim Houthis in the north of the nation has in the past drawn in Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim-led monarchy that last week sent troops to help suppress a Shiite-led uprising in another neighbor, Bahrain.