SANAA, Yemen, (AP) – Yemen sent 2,000 policemen into the streets of the capital on Wednesday to try to put down days of protests against the president of 32 years, a key U.S. ally in battling al-Qaeda.
The policemen, including plainclothes officers, fired in the air and blocked thousands of students at Sanaa University from joining thousands of other protesters elsewhere in the capital who were holding a sixth straight day of demonstrations.
Taking inspiration from the toppling of autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen’s protesters are demanding political reforms and the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Their central complaints are poverty, unemployment and corruption.
Yemen is a conflict-ridden and impoverished nation. Its president has become a crucial U.S. partner in battling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror network’s offshoot in Yemen. The group’s several hundred fighters have battled Saleh’s U.S.-backed forces and have been linked to attacks beyond Yemen’s borders, including the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009.
The U.S. military plans a $75 million training program with Yemen’s counterterrorism unit to expand its size and capabilities in the nation’s difficult mountain terrain. It’s a difficult balancing act for Saleh, who has been criticized as being too close to the U.S.
Now facing unprecedented street demonstrations, Saleh has tried to defuse protesters’ anger by saying he will not run for another term in elections in 2013 and that he will not seek to set up his son to succeed him.
Nonetheless, protesters chanted slogans against the president’s son, Ahmed, on Wednesday.
Witnesses said police chained the university’s iron gates in order to prevent students from pouring into adjacent streets.
They said at least four protesters were wounded in scuffles with police.
Demonstrations are also taking place in the port city of Aden and in Taaz, where thousands of protesters shouted, “Down … down with Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
Saleh’s weak government — whose control barely extends beyond the capital and is dependent on fragile alliances with powerful tribes — faces other serious challenges.
For more than six years, government forces have been battling an on-and-off armed rebellion in the north. A secessionist movement by the once-independent south of Yemen is also heating up. The country is also rapidly running out of water and its main source of income — oil.