SANAA (AFP) – Tens of thousands of protesters amassed on Thursday at Sanaa University for a “day of rage” calling for the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, while a similar number of government loyalists flooded a central square.
“We are here to bring down a corrupt and tyrannical regime,” Najib Ghanem, a deputy from the Islamist Al-Islah party that is part of the Common Forum alliance of opposition parties, told anti-Saleh protesters.
“The revolt for justice began in Tunisia. It continues today in Egypt, and Yemen tomorrow will be free from injustice,” he said, referring to a popular revolt that led to the Tunisian president’s fall, and protests in Egypt seeking the departure of its president.
“We will continue our peaceful struggle until the fall of this unjust regime,” various speakers from the Common Forum repeated to the massive crowd of anti-Saleh demonstrators.
The protest, the biggest staged against Saleh in past weeks, came despite the president announcing Wednesday that he would not seek another term and that he had postponed controversial April elections — two key opposition demands.
Pro-Saleh demonstrators were also out in force, with tens of thousands of loyalists — about the same sized crowd as the anti-regime protesters — gathering in Al-Tahrir Square to pledge their support for Saleh.
They 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.”
Opposition leaders, who have been calling protesters onto the streets in a bid to force Saleh into making reforms, had said they would push on with Thursday’s planned “day of rage” despite Saleh pronouncements but that they would also study his comments.
Their plans were affected when armed supporters of Saleh’s General People’s Congress took over Al-Tahrir Square, the initial protest venue, on Wednesday night, setting up tents and carrying portraits of the president.
Protest organisers then drove through the streets from early Thursday blaring out over megaphones that the venue had been changed to Sanaa University, about two kilometres (1.2 miles) from the square.
They blamed the change on the fact that “the men of the ruling party and their armed elements are holding Al-Tahrir.”
The switch in venue did little to dampen the enthusiasm of protesters, who flocked to the university where they were joined by Common Forum leaders.
Protesters held banners reading, “The people demand a change” of regime, and “No to a hereditary regime, no to an extension of mandate.” Saleh pledged he would not seek either on Wednesday.
Protesters expressed solidarity with Egyptian demonstrators who were on Thursday staging a 10th day of increasingly bloody protests against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
“May God help the Egyptian people against the tyrant Hosni Mubarak,” the protesters chorused, while police stood at a distance.
Facing demands for him to quit, Saleh on Wednesday announced that he would not seek another term as president, and said he will freeze plans to change the constitution that would have enabled him to remain president for life.
He also said he was opposed to hereditary rule, a response to suspicion among critics that was grooming his eldest son Ahmed Saleh, who commands an elite unit of the Yemeni army, to succeed him as president.
In what appeared to be yet another bid to stave off the kind of mass anti-regime protests that have swept Tunisia and Egypt and which have rippled throughout the Arab world, Saleh also announced he would postpone controversial elections due in April.
Mohammed al-Sabri of the Common Forum said Saleh’s call to halt protests was “unacceptable.” However, he said the group would “discuss the president’s announcement.”
There have been clashes during previous protests against Saleh, including on January 29, when dozens of activists calling for his ouster fought with regime supporters in Sanaa. Plain-clothes police also attacked demonstrators.
But the protests on Thursday were peaceful, according to AFP correspondents.
Facing growing protests since last month’s downfall of Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the wave of anti-regime protests in Egypt, Saleh has also urged the government to take measures against unemployment and ordered that social security coverage be extended.