Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh 311 Reu.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
SANAA - President Ali Abdullah Saleh said on Friday he was ready to cede power to prevent more bloodshed in Yemen but only to what he called "safe hands" as a massive "Day of Departure" street protest against him began.
Western countries are alarmed that al Qaida militants entrenched in the Arabian Peninsula country could exploit any chaos arising from a messy transition of power if Saleh, a pivotal US and Saudi ally fighting for his political life, finally steps down after 32 years in office. "We don't want power, but we need to hand power over to safe hands, not to sick, resentful or corrupt hands," Saleh said in a rousing speech to supporters shown on state television as tens of thousands of his foes rallied elsewhere in the capital Sanaa.
Thousands of Saleh supporters in Sanaa were also out early on the
streets for what they dubbed the "Friday of Tolerance", with banners
saying "No to chaos, yes to security and stability." Some were carrying
guns and traditional Yemeni daggers, others were wavings flags and
playing patriotic songs.
"We are ready to leave power but only for safe hands," Saleh said. "We
are against firing a single bullet and when we give concessions this is
to ensure there is no bloodshed. We will remain steadfast and challenge
them with all power we have."
Protesters encamped in their thousands outside Sanaa University for six
weeks declared Friday a "Day of Departure" when they hoped to bring
hundreds of thousands onto the streets in a further attempt to oust
Saleh, a serial survivor of civil war, separatist movements and militant
attacks. Similar mass protests on March 18 left 52 people dead,
apparently gunned down by plainclothes snipers. That bloodshed prompted a
string of generals, diplomats and tribal leaders to abandon Saleh,
severely weakening his position.
"The government cannot just shoot its way out of this crisis," Philip
Luther, Amnesty's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa,
said in a statement. "Whether in uniform or in plainclothes, security
forces must be immediately stopped from using live ammunition on unarmed
protesters."SALEH MEETS DISSIDENT TOP GENERALThe Wall Street Journal
reported on Thursday that Saleh and top general Ali Mohsen -- the most
significant of this week's defectors -- were hashing out a deal whereby
both men resign within days to allow a civilian transitional government.
A spokesman for Saleh denied the report but said Saleh had held a
meeting over the past 48 hours with the general. "Ali Mohsen clarified
why he did what he did and requested assurances that nothing would
happen against him," Ahmed al-Sufi said.
Saleh was defiant in a speech on Thursday, offering only an amnesty to defecting troops at a meeting with commanders.
Soldiers loyal to Mohsen fired in the air later on Friday to prevent a
crowd of Saleh supporters from reaching the anti-government protest
where tens of thousands were rallying.
Security was tight, as the army conducted five separate checks on people entering the zone on Friday morning.
Positions have hardened since last Friday's bloodshed.
"I came here to get rid of this butcher because he killed our comrades,"
said Abdullah Jabali, 33, a student, who said he did not believe
Saleh's promises to stand down within a year.
"I just want this president and his family to leave peacefully, not to
leave the country but to step down," said Mahdi Mohammed, 36, a
translator from Aden.
Shortly before Saleh spoke, mosque preacher Tawhib al-Doba'i praised protesters for keeping up the pressure.
"You have achieved so much in Taghyeer (Change) Square. God's wisdom was
that the people of Yemen should stay in the street for weeks, for
dignity to take the place of humiliation," he told worshippers outside
Saleh, who oversaw the 1990 unification of north and south Yemen and
emerged victorious from a civil war four years later, has shown no signs
publicly of being prepared to quit now.
He has offered a string of concessions, all rejected by opposition
parties, including this week to hold presidential elections by January
2012. He has also warned military officers who have turned against him
not to plot a coup.