|Tens of thousands of Yemenis squared off in street protests for and against the government on Thursday [EPA]|
Thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets of Yemen in a planned “day of rage” against the president, a day after he offered to step down in two years time.
Up to 20,000 people gathered in Sanaa, the capital, on Thursday, demanding Al Abdullah Saleh end his 30-year rule of the impoverished nation, inspired by ongoing events in Egypt.
But the crowd was met by a counter rally of pro-government protesters, leading to small scuffles between the two groups until police intervened.
In a separate protest in Aden, a southern port city, officers reportedly fired tear gas and live ammunition to break up demonstrators, the AFP news agency said.
The action comes a day after Saleh announced that he would not seek extension once his current term ends in 2013, and vowed to postpone controversial April elections – two key opposition demands.
He also said that he was opposed to hereditary rule, a response to suspicion among critics that he was grooming his eldest son, Ahmed Saleh, who commands an elite unit of the Yemeni army, to succeed him as president.
Saleh’s move was an apparent attempt to defuse anti-government protests across the region, inspired by Tunisia’s revolt and the turmoil in Egypt.
Mohammed al-Sabri of the Common Forum said Saleh’s call to halt protests was “unacceptable”, but added the group would “discuss the president’s announcement.”
Anti-government protest plans had been affected when armed supporters of Saleh’s General People’s Congress took over Al-Tahrir Square, the planned protest venue, on Wednesday night.
They set up tents and were carrying portraits of the president.
Opposition group organisers changed the venue of Thursday’s protests to Sanaa university, about two kilometres from the square.
Protesters were joined at the university by leaders of the Common Forum, an alliance of five parliamentary opposition parties including the religious Al-Islah party and the Yemeni Socialist Party.
They expressed solidarity with Egyptian demonstrators who were on Thursday staging a 10th day of increasingly bloody protests against the government of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president.
Demonstrators held banners reading, “The people want regime change,” and “No to corruption, no to dictatorship”.
At Al-Tahrir Square in Sanaa, tens of thousands of government loyalists pledged their support for Saleh and carried banners reading, “We are with Ali Abdullah Saleh. We are with Yemen,” “The opposition wants to destroy Yemen” and “No to destruction, no to sedition.”
Facing growing protests since last month’s downfall of Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the wave of pro-democracy protests in Egypt, Saleh has urged the government in Yemen to take measures against unemployment and ordered that social security coverage be extended.
Saleh’s announcement to step down, is his boldest gambit yet to stave off turmoil in Yemen, which is a key ally of the United Statest in the fight against al Qaeda.
Yemen is battling to fight the group whilse also quelling separatism in the south and attempting to cement peace with Shia rebels in the north, all in the face of crushing poverty.
Instability in Yemen would present serious political and security risks for Gulf states.
Saleh, a shrewd political survivor, has backed out of previous promises to step aside. Analysts say that Wednesday’s pledge could be a genuine way to exit gracefully but he may also hope to wait out regional unrest and reassert dominance another day.