Thousands in Yemen March Against Saleh

Yemeni anti-government protesters chant slogans demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Thousands in Yemen March Against Saleh

Crowds on the streets for protests dubbed a "day of departure" but president delivers a defiant speech to supporters.

Tens of thousands of protesters are on the streets of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, to call for an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule, as the embattled president said he would only hand over power "to capable, responsible hands".

Addressing a large rally of his own supporters in a speech carried on state TV earlier on Friday, Saleh said he was ready to meet with protesters, but warned that those demanding his resignation had been influenced by the Houthis - an armed Shia Zaidi group demanding autonomy in the country's north - and "drug dealers".

Saleh was president of North Yemen until its 1990 unification with the south - and has ruled the country since.

But Al Jazeera's special correspondent, reporting from the capital's Change (Taghyir) Square - where 52 protesters were killed last Friday - said little new was offered in the speech; on one hand, warning and threatening those standing against him, and on the other, promising reforms and saying he would listen to the demands of the people.

Soldiers who have abandoned the president and were deployed to protect protesters in the square shot in the air to disperse groups of Saleh supporters who were attempting to reach the protest after the president's speech.

Our correspondent added that protesters said a sniper had shot and injured one of the soldiers guarding the square.

'Peace, stability and security'

Saleh said the gathered crowds before him came "under no orders from any political party or any leader, you came of your own free will, based on your patriotic responsibility, from all corners of the country, on this great day - the Friday of peace, stability and security".

He continued: "Yes to stability and security, no to chaos and vandalism, no to creating chaos, no to pillage and assault on government institutions. No to pillage of the country's riches. To those who are protesting - you did not contribute to the country's achievements".

Criticising the media, the Houthis and other political parties, Saleh said protest organisers were "adventurous conspirators" who were "acting out of malice".

But he added to those taking part in demonstrations: "My fellow citizens, those holding the sit-ins, I am prepared to sit with you and to respond to each one of your demands. You should not be a vehicle for the malicious to ruin every great aspect of life ... the country is a trust and responsibility for you.

"We need to hand over the banner of rule to honest hands, capable hands - not malicious hands. We are prepared to give up power, but only to good people, after elections. We are against chaos and mayhem. The demonstrators in [Change] Square are targeted by the Houthis and drug traffickers."

Protesters undeterred

But, at the protesters' rally across the city, where tens of thousands of people gathered for Friday prayers in front of Sanaa university, the positive mood remained unchanged, said our correspondent.

"In some way, he is playing to some peoples' fears, that, after Saleh leaves, there will be some kind of military rule and that there are political aspirations behind the defections from the army - despite the fact that Ali Mohsen, the key general who defected earlier this week, has said very clearly that if he wanted to take power, he would have done so decades ago - and that he has no political aspirations," said Al Jazeera's reporter in Sanaa.

"What the people really want to see is for a five-man presidential council to take control in the interim period, until elections can be held - because they simply don't believe that if elections are held under the current regime that they will be free and fair."

Earlier in the day, the city had split, with water cannon reportedly mounted on the side of the dividing line that holds the presidential palace - itself surrounded by Saleh's republican guard. It threatened to be a flashpoint for violence if protesters attempted to march, as many expected they would, the 5km to the palace.

Defecting general

General Ali Mohsen has thrown his weight behind the protesters and sent troops to protect pro-democracy protesters in Sanaa. He said the options before Saleh were now few, and criticised what he described as Saleh's "stubbornness", but said the armed forces were committed to protecting protesters.

He also said military rule in Arab countries was outdated and that the people would decide who would govern them in the framework of a modern, civilian state.

Mohsen, commander of the northwest military zone and Saleh's kinsman from the al-Ahmar clan, is the most senior military officer to back the protests, and his move on Monday triggered a stream of defections in the military and government, adding momentum to the opposition movement.

Previous offer rejected

On Thursday night, opposition groups dismissed Saleh's offer to stand down after a presidential election at the end of the year, stepping up efforts to remove him from power.

Yassin Noman, head of Yemen's opposition coalition, dismissed Saleh's earlier offer as "empty words" and a spokesman said the umbrella coalition would not respond.

"No dialogue and no initiatives for this dead regime," opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabry said on Thursday.

Protesters are demanding a new constitution and the dissolution of parliament, local councils and the notorious state security agencies - as well as the immediate resignation of President Saleh.

Saleh offered amnesty to defecting troops, calling their decisions "foolish acts", taken in reaction to last Friday's deaths.

Washington, which has urged US citizens to leave Yemen, warned those remaining to stay away from demonstrations.

Britain said it had drawn up plans for a possible military evacuation of its citizens who remain in Yemen.

Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament he had reports that oil companies were withdrawing their staff, and part of the British embassy staff was being withdrawn from Sanaa ahead of Friday's protests.

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