Protesters chanted slogans in support of Yemen's vice president [AFP]

Thousands of Yemenis have rallied in the capital Sanaa to back a single-candidate presidential election planned for later this month, an AFP correspondent reported.

The demonstrators gathered in Sanaa's Change Square on Friday, chanting slogans in support of the election in which Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, the vice president, will be the sole candidate.

The planned vote has sparked protests in the country's south.

"February 21 is the day on which Yemen will be reborn," read a slogan printed on a large picture of Hadi brandished by the demonstrators.

"We have all agreed that Hadi will rule for our country's independence," they chanted.

"Hadi, take the key, the slaughterer's rule has ended," they shouted, referring to the hundreds of people killed in clashes with the security forces since nationwide protests erupted in January last year opposing President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule.

Change Square has been the epicentre of the protests against Saleh who left the country for the US in January for treatment following a June 2011 attack that left him seriously wounded. He had been in hospital in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for months.

The poll is one of the centrepieces of a deal sponsored by the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) which Saleh signed with the parliamentary opposition last November.

Immunity pledge controversial

Under the deal, Saleh is to hand power to Hadi after the vote in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution.

Unlike the poll, the immunity pledge remains deeply controversial with the Change Square protesters.

"Our demand will not change, we will not accept anything but a trial," they chanted.

Hadi himself hails from the formerly independent south of Yemen but the single-candidate election has proved controversial in the restive region.

On Thursday, security forces shot dead two protesters against the vote in the southern town of Daleh, witnesses said.

Activists of the Southern Movement say the election fails to meet their aspirations for autonomy or renewed independence for the region.

Some factions of the movement have been campaigning for a boycott. Its hardline pro-independence wing, led by former southern leader Ali Salem al-Baidh, has called on supporters to disrupt the poll.

The south was independent from the end of British colonial rule in 1967 until union with the north in 1990.

It broke away again in 1994, sparking a brief civil war that ended with the region being overrun by northern troops.

Southerners have since complained of discrimination by the Sanaa government in the allocation of resources and there have been repeated protests in favour of self-rule for the region.

Source: Agencies