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Yemen "Day of Rage" Draws Tens of Thousands

Tom Finn in Sana'a

Opposition supporters shout slogans during an anti-government protest in Sanaa February 3, 2011. (Credit: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)

A battle for hearts and minds took place in the Yemeni capital of
Sana'a today as major demonstrations both against and in support of
President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime were held within a few miles of
each other.

opposition coalition went ahead with nationwide demonstrations in
defiance of a plea from Saleh yesterday to freeze all planned protests,
rallies and sit-ins.

Around 20,000 protesters, most of them young
men, occupied three major roads around Sana'a University in some of the
biggest anti-government protests Saleh has faced in his 32-year rule.
Large-scale protests also took place in other cities across Yemen,
including Ibb and Taiz.

"Together we fight against poverty,
corruption and injustice," the protesters at Sana'a university chanted,
between intermittent bursts of music and speeches delivered by
opposition politicians from Yemen's Islamist, socialist and Nasserite

Despite being billed as a "day of rage", the opposition
protests went off peacefully. Soldiers watched from the rooftops as
students wearing pink bandanas – in reference to the uprising in Tunisia
– formed a human wall around the protesters to see off potential

"Saleh needs to form a new government," said Mohammed
Al-Ashwal, the director of political affairs for Yemen's Islamic party,
Islah. "We've had enough of being left on the sidelines. Let the Yemeni
people decide who will rule them in clean, fair elections."

protesters in Egypt, Yemen's opposition had planned to hold their
demonstrations in Tahreer, or Liberation square in the heart of the
capital. Government authorities beat them to it, however, filling it
with marquees and sending hundreds of tribesmen to camp out there

By morning the square was filled with thousands of
middle-aged Yemeni men. Placards bearing pictures of the president were
handed out to supporters and groups of men shouting pro-Saleh slogans
were set off at regular intervals to parade through the streets of

"Saleh keeps this country from collapse," said a
70-year-old man from the southern city of Taiz, cloaked in a tattered
Yemeni flag.

In a last ditch attempt to appease the protesters,
Saleh announced yesterday that he would step down in 2013 and that his
son Ahmed would not succeed him.

"No extension, no inheritance, no
resetting the clock," Saleh said in reference to ruling party proposals
to abolish term limits which would have allowed him to run again.

Saleh's words echoed a statement he made before Yemen's last round of presidential elections in 2006.

are tired of me and I of you. It is time for change," Saleh told
parliament in July 2005. Shortly afterwards, thousands of Yemenis
protested in Sana'a, demanding the president change his mind, which he

"Saleh is a good man, but he is under the influence of
corrupt people in his government, and he will have to change, he will
have to start listening to what his people are saying," said Nasser
Al-Awlaki, the father of one of the anti-government protesters.

he doesn't act soon, things will escalate. The opposition has grown
much stronger, and there are thousands upon thousands of people here
demanding change."

Police set up road blocks across the capital,
fearing that weapons might be smuggled into the capital for the
protests. There are three times as many guns as there are people in
Yemen. But by mid-afternoon both protests had tailed off, neither side
confronted the other, and the opposition supporters went on their way
with a promise to return every Thursday until their demands were met.

demonstrations will continue until the government and the president
come to a consensus with the people of Yemen," said Mohammed Al-Sudal,
an opposition MP from the Nasserite party.

"Today's demonstrations
send a loud and clear message that Yemen is a democratic country and
that the people here are both safe and stable. It's now up to Yemen's
political parties to reach an agreement and move forward," said Tariq
Shami, the spokesman for Saleh's General People's Congress party.

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