SANAA, (AFP) — Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ruling party has rejected growing demands for his ouster, as soldiers on Saturday killed six suspected Al-Qaeda members in the south of the country.
Saleh, in power since 1978 and a key US ally in its fight against Al-Qaeda, has faced two months of street protests and his regime has been hit over the past week by defections in the ranks of top military and tribal leaders.
“It is unacceptable and illogical to override the constitutional legality or for the minority to impose its will on the majority of the people,” his General People’s Congress (GPC) said in a meeting late on Friday.
The GPC accused the opposition of having “closed the door to dialogue and sought isolation”, and said the crowds who took part in a pro-regime rally of solidarity with Saleh on Friday numbered three million.
Saleh himself said he would hand over power but only to “safe hands”, in a defiant speech to his massed supporters, after talks with a top defector apparently failed to defuse Yemen’s political crisis.
“We don’t need power. We need to hand it over to safe hands, and not to corrupt and hateful hands … You are the ones who will be handed power,” Yemen’s strongman told his supporters.
The president, whose concessions and offers to stand down early have been snubbed by the opposition, renewed his invitation for youths at the forefront of the protests to join a dialogue.
“I am ready to talk to you and to form a political party for the youths,” said Saleh, 69, who has ruled Yemen for more than 30 years.
In behind-the-scenes talks aimed at averting more bloodshed, Saleh and top dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, considered the second strongest man in Yemen, failed to strike a deal on Thursday night, the two sides said.
Defections to the opposition accelerated after regime loyalists opened fire during a protest in Sanaa on March 18, killing 52 people.
Ahmar, a regional army commander who has vowed to defend the protesters, is leading efforts to form a transitional council grouping all sides, according to sources close to the secret negotiations.
With hundreds of thousands of rival demonstrators on Sanaa’s streets on Friday, soldiers fired warning shots to prevent loyalists whipped up by Saleh’s speech attacking anti-regime protesters. There were no reports of casualties.
Many in the anti-regime camp brandished football referee-style red cards signaling it was time for Saleh to go.
In southern Yemen, a security source said on Saturday the military killed six suspected Al-Qaeda members who attacked a post in restive Abyan, a stronghold of the Islamist militants.
“The Al-Qaeda members launched an armed attack on a military unit stationed at a power plant in Loder. The military responded, killing six of the attackers,” the source told AFP.
Government forces and Al-Qaeda militants fought a pitched battle in Loder in late August, when at least 33 people were killed, including 19 militants.
Analysts have said Saleh’s role as a key US anti-Qaeda ally has likely contributed to Washington’s relatively muted response to deadly crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in Yemen.