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Yemen protesters speak of march on president's palace

Such a provocation would challenge the power of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at a time many of his supporters are abandoning him after his security forces killed more than 50 protesters last week.

March 24, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • An anti-government protester shouts at a rally Wednesday in Sana. Leaders of the opposition coalition said the planned march on the presidential palace would dramatically escalate the standoff and probably set off more bloodshed.
An anti-government protester shouts at a rally Wednesday in Sana. Leaders… (Ammar Awad / Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — Tanks shadowed street corners and rival soldiers kept watch in Yemen's capital, Sana, where protesters Wednesday plotted a possible march on the palace of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has refused to step down after weeks of demonstrations and defections by generals and government officials.

Sana has become at once eerie and intoxicating because of an anticipated showdown Friday, when tens of thousands of protesters may rally in front of the embattled president's home. The prospect for violence is high as troops supporting demonstrators share the narrow streets of an ancient capital with soldiers loyal to Saleh.

Antigovernment protesters have not marched on the presidential palace during more than a month of demonstrations. Such a provocation would challenge Saleh's power at a time tribes and many in the ruling party are abandoning him after security forces killed more than 50 protesters last week.

The dueling images of pro- and anti-Saleh demonstrators intensified as parliament endorsed the army's earlier imposition of emergency law, suspending the constitution and banning protests. Many feared the nation, one of the most impoverished and volatile in the Arab world, would tumble into civil war.

Saleh announced through a spokesman Wednesday that he would agree to electing a new president by the end of the year, one of several proposals he rejected only two weeks ago.

Protesters and opposition leaders are now calling for his immediate resignation. They were emboldened by military commanders, including Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh Ahmar, who have joined their ranks against Saleh's 32-year rule.

The nation's divided military deployed throughout the capital. Green-camouflaged soldiers of the Central Security Forces, headed by the president's nephew Yahya Saleh, erected roadblocks and stationed tanks around the vast neighborhood that encompasses their headquarters and the presidential palace.

Dozens of pro-government tribesmen, holding ruling party flags and placards of the president, waved and pumped their fists at the troops from the back of speeding pickups, chanting, "The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh!"

But toward the university district, the epicenter for the anti-Saleh demonstrations, soldiers dressed in the drab brown and olive fatigues of Ahmar's 1st Brigade manned checkpoints and peered down from rooftops.

"We have protection now, but more importantly than that we have confidence," said Ali Wazid, a 26-year-old teacher. "We want to move in front of the president's house, to show him that he can't hide, and we won't rest until he leaves."

He stood beneath a stage set up by protesters in the university's square, where loudspeakers boomed with the resounding voice of a young boy, flanked by his veiled mother and sister, chanting, "Leave! Leave! You cannot ignore what the revolutionaries have achieved here!"

Some suggested the protesters were demanding too much, even as the nation's foreign minister is in Saudi Arabia seeking mediation to end the conflict. Saleh's office said Wednesday that the president wanted to "end the current state of political turmoil."

"I've supported the youth in the street all along, but I have to agree with the president now," said Assam Harazi, a 43-year-old accountant. "Let him step down gracefully, for the good of the country and to avoid clashes."

Leaders of the opposition coalition said the planned march on the presidential palace would dramatically escalate the standoff and probably set off more bloodshed. They also said the prospect of a rally might put enough strain on the president and his military to force him to resign to stem growing international criticism and avoid a repeat of last week's violence.

"We would hold Saleh and his relatives and all those who stand by them responsible for any attack on these peaceful youths," said Muhammad Sabri, a coalition spokesman. "They have no right to repress them now, as the Yemeni people are the source of all authority, and they are taking power into their own hands now."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

A special correspondent in Sana contributed to this report.

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