SANAA, (Reuters) – Thousands of supporters of embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh were gathering in the capital, Sanaa, for a rally on Saturday following a huge loyalist show of support the previous day.
Weeks of protests across Yemen have brought Saleh’s 32-year rule to the verge of collapse but the United States and neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia, an important financial backer, are worried about who might succeed him in a country where al Qaeda militants flourish.
On Friday, tens of thousands, both for and against Saleh, took to the streets in Sanaa as negotiators struggled to revive talks to decide his fate.
“I swear to you I will sacrifice blood and soul and everything precious for the sake of this great people,” a defiant Saleh told supporters gathered at a main square on Friday as the crowed chanted “the people want Ali Abdullah Saleh”.
On Saturday, Saleh, who has has lost the support of many tribal, military and political backers, met representatives of several tribes, officials said, as he dug in against demands for his resignation.
Thousands of protesters continued sit-ins in the capital, the southern port city of Aden, Taiz, 200 km (125 miles) south of Sanaa, and other cities.
Saleh is looking to stay on as president while new parliamentary and presidential elections are organised by the end of the year, an opposition source told Reuters on Tuesday.
Talks over his exit have stalled and Saudi authorities have deflected Yemeni government efforts to involve them in mediation.
Rallies ended peacefully on Friday, but they could spiral into violence at any time in the turbulent Arabian Peninsula state where more than half the 23 million population own a gun. Some 82 people have been killed so far, including 52 shot by snipers on March 18.
Rows can often turn to bloodshed, from tribal clashes over dwindling water resources to army skirmishes with separatist militants in the south.
Washington has long regarded Saleh as a bulwark of stability who can keep al Qaeda from extending its foothold in Yemen, a country which many see as close to disintegration.
Saleh has talked of civil war if he steps down without ensuring power passes to “safe hands” and has warned against a coup after senior generals turned against him.
Opposition parties say they can handle the militant issue better than Saleh, who they say has made deals in the past to avoid provoking Yemen’s Islamists.