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Yemen President Says Won't Stand for Another Term; Opposition Figures Say Rallies Will Go Forward
SANAA - Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, under opposition pressure to stand down, said on Wednesday he will freeze constitutional changes that would have seen him become president for life.
On the eve of a "day of rage" called by civil society and opposition leaders, Saleh told parliament he had also put off controversial plans for elections in April, and appealed for an end to street protests.
"I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule," said Saleh, who has been head of state of the Arab world's poorest nation for decades but whose term is due to end in 2013.
In his address to parliament, which was boycotted by the opposition, Saleh announced the "freezing of constitutional amendments" and the postponement of elections scheduled for April.
Yemen, at the strategic southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, is wracked with conflict -- including a separatist movement in the once-independent south, a Shiite rebellion in the north, and a growing presence of Al-Qaeda guerrillas.
Saleh's pledge came a day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 82, facing unprecedented mass protests to stand down immediately after 30 years in power, declared that he would not seek another term in office.
Tensions soared in Yemen after parliament, dominated by the president's General People's Congress, endorsed a draft constitutional amendment that, if approved, would have enabled Saleh to stay in office for life.
Saleh's critics also suspect him of grooming his eldest son Ahmed Saleh, who commands the Republican Guard, an elite unit of the Yemeni army, to succeed him.
Until last weekend, demonstrations had taken place on a nearly daily basis in the capital Sanaa, calling for an end to Saleh's rule, and protest leaders have called for Thursday to be a "day of rage" all over the country.
Unimpressed by Saleh's remarks, they said mass protests would go ahead.
"Thursday's demonstration will continue as scheduled," said Mohammed Kahtan of the Islamist Al-Islah (Reform) party, while Mohammed al-Sabri of the Common Forum opposition alliance said Saleh's call to halt protests was "unacceptable".
Poverty is widespread in Yemen, with 45 percent of its 21.1 million people living on less than $2 (1.45 euros) a day, says the UN Development Programme on its website.
In geopolitical terms, Yemen's fate is important, given its position at the southern end of the Red Sea, across from the Horn of Africa -- a critical and busy passageway for shipping between Asia and the West.
Facing growing protests among Yemenis since last month's downfall of Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the ongoing mass protests in Egypt, Saleh, who has already taken measures to try to sooth popular discontent, urged the government to provide Yemen's unemployed youths with jobs.
On Monday, after increasing wages and reducing incomes taxes, he ordered the creation of a fund to employ university graduates and to extend social security coverage.
Emulating the self-immolation in Tunisia that touched off the popular revolt there, four people have set themselves on fire in Yemen, most recently in the port city of Aden a week ago.
Saleh, re-elected to a seven-year mandate in September 2006, also renewed calls onto the opposition parties to resume dialogue aimed at forging a unity government.
The mandate of the current parliament was extended by two years to April under a February 2009 agreement between the General People's Congress and opposition parties to allow dialogue on political reform.
But reform talks have stalled since a decision to hold legislative elections on April 27, without waiting for the dialogue process to run its course, and a special committee set up to oversee reform has met only once.
Reforms on the table included a shift from a presidential regime to proportional representation in parliament and further decentralisation of government -- both measures that have not been implemented.