Marchers for and against Yemen’s Saleh face off

By Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam

SANAA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of demonstrators for and against embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh rallied on Friday, with no resolution in sight after weeks of inconclusive talks amid mounting clashes.

The United States and Gulf Arab countries including Yemen’s key financial backer, Saudi Arabia, appear ready to push aside a long-time ally against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing to avoid a chaotic collapse of the poorest Arab state.

“Saleh’s options are gone. The Gulf initiative must have come as a shock from Saudi Arabia, which was his last ally,” said Mohammed Sharqi, the leader of a youth protest movement in Sanaa, referring to a Gulf Arab plan for Saleh to step down.

Pro- and anti-Saleh marchers gathered in both the capital and the city of Taiz, south of Sanaa, where the funeral of protesters killed earlier this week could trigger fresh clashes.

Saleh’s sometimes violent response to two months of protests against his 32-year rule has tried the patience of Washington and Riyadh, both of which have been the target of attempted attacks by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch.

Washington froze its largest aid package for Yemen in February after protests began, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“The first installment of the aid package, worth a potential $1 billion or more over several years, was set to be rolled out in February, marking the White House’s largest bid at securing President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s allegiance in its battle against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” it said.

Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the paper said the proposed package included up to $200 million in counter-terrorism support this fiscal year, up from $155 million in fiscal 2010, as well as a nearly equal amount for development aid.

The Washington Post said a Yemeni opposition party leader had told a U.S. embassy official in Sanaa about a secret plan to oust Saleh less than two years ago.

Several previously undisclosed U.S. diplomatic cables provided by the website WikiLeaks revealed that U.S. officials were aware of Yemen’s political state but largely discounted the prospect that Saleh could be forced out, it said.

Pro-democracy protesters held a “Friday of firmness” in Sanaa, shouting “You’re next, you leader of the corrupt,” as armored vehicles and security forces deployed across the city.

FUNERAL MARCH

Some 4 km (2.5 miles) away, tens of thousands of Saleh loyalists were marching, waving pictures of the president and banners that read “No to terrorism, no to sabotage.”

In a move that could spark clashes, some 700 riot police took up position in an area close General Ali Mohsen’s forces. The veteran senior commander defected from Saleh weeks ago, and his troops are protecting a protest camp near Sanaa University.

Earlier this week, clashes broke out between Mohsen’s forces and armed tribesmen, killing at least three people.

Tension also ran high in Taiz, south of Sanaa, where large crowds of Saleh loyalists prayed at a soccer stadium while hundreds of thousands of anti-Saleh protesters gathered in another part of the city. They were waiting for prayers to end to begin a funeral march for five protesters killed earlier this week in clashes with security forces.

Friday prayers have traditionally been a trigger for demonstrations which at one point looked to have brought Saleh’s rule close to collapse. Both sides in the dispute are now considering a Gulf Arab plan for his orderly departure.

Talks with the opposition to negotiate a transition stalled weeks ago, and the Gulf Cooperation Council is also having trouble obtaining agreement from all parties for its initiative.

The GCC plan would guarantee Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution, an opposition source said on Thursday, but youth activists have said that should be rejected.

“Saleh needs to understand that he is going,” said Sanaa protester Mohammed al-Sharaabi. “Yet he is still looking for more guarantees.”

Frustration with the impasse may push the thousands of Yemenis who have taken to the streets closer to violence. Some 21 people died in clashes this week in Taiz and the Red Sea port of Hudaida.

No strangers to war and insurgency, Yemenis are heavily armed — one in two of the 23 million population owns a gun.

Even before the pro-democracy protests inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi’ite insurgency in the north.

A violent power struggle could also give al Qaeda’s Yemen-based regional wing more room to operate.

All of these factors spark concern for stability in a country that sits on a shipping lane through which more than three million barrels of oil pass each day.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter and key ally and funder of Saleh, fears that its neighbor could fragment along tribal or regional lines if a way is not found out of the crisis soon — something Saleh has warned of in recent speeches.

(Writing by Erika Solomon and Nick Macfie, editing by Paul Taylor)

Marchers for and against Yemen’s Saleh face off