SANAA, (Reuters) – Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told a huge rally of supporters Friday that he would sacrifice everything for his country, suggesting he has no plans to step down yet.
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.
Tens of thousands of protesters, both for and against Saleh, took to the streets of Yemen’s capital in a bid to draw the larger crowd as negotiators struggle to revive talks to decide his fate.
“I swear to you that I will sacrifice my blood and soul and everything precious for the sake of this great people,” he told supporters who shouted “the people want Ali Abdullah Saleh” in response.
Rallies attracted large numbers in Sanaa even before midday prayers, a time which has been a critical period for drawing crowds in protest movements that have swept across the region and unseated entrenched rulers in Tunisia and Egypt.
“It seems Saleh is going down with the ship,” said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Dubai-based INEGMA group. “The only way he’ll let himself get dislodged is if he loses even more supporters from his inner circle.”
Saleh has lost key support from tribal, military and political aides.
“It seems like he’s not ready to go,” Karasik said. “He’s making statements saying he’s going to do what’s best for Yemen but really this is just Saleh trying to do what’s best for Saleh.”
Helicopters buzzed over ahead, monitoring both protests.
“Out traitor, the Yemeni people are in revolt. We, the army and the police are united under oppression,” anti-Saleh protesters shouted outside Sanaa University, where tens of thousands had gathered.
One cleric said during morning prayers at the rally: “I say to you, Saleh, while you sit terrified in your palace, that the people are on to your tricks…. You (protesters) represent the oppressed, the poor and the imprisoned.”
But tensions were high as equally large crowds came out in a show of support for Saleh in Sabyeen Square, about four km (2.5 miles) away. Hundreds of security forces were deployed at checkpoints across the city as tanks rolled through the streets.
Anti-Saleh protesters have named the day a “Friday of enough,” while loyalists branded it a “Friday of brotherhood.”
“We send a message from the Yemeni majority to them (the opposition) and the whole world … of our support for the nation and for our leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh,” former prime minister Ali Mohammed Megawar said, addressing the pro-Saleh rally.
A government official who helped organise the demonstration told Reuters the ruling party expected tens of thousands of supporters to arrive in the capital. Tens of cars and buses were driving into Sanaa filled with people waving Yemeni flags and pictures of Saleh, witnesses said.
Some Sanaa residents said they had been paid the equivalent of $250 to join the pro-Saleh protest. Others, from outside the city, said they had been paid between $300 and $350.
Protests could easily spiral into violence in this turbulent state on the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula — over half the population of 23 million own a gun. Some 82 people have been killed so far, including 52 shot by snipers on March 18.
A well-known journalist, Abdul Ghani al-Shameri, who had run several television channels including state TV and recently resigned from the ruling party, was taken away from his Sanaa home in a car around midnight Thursday by people his family described as plainclothes police. Further details were not immediately available.
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 Tuesday.
Talks over his exit have stalled and it is not yet clear how they can restart. Saudi authorities have deflected Yemeni government efforts to involve them in mediation.
Protesters camped outside Sanaa University since early February insist that Saleh, who has said he will not run for re-election when his term ends in 2013, should step down now.
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 that power passes to “safe hands.” He has warned against a coup after senior generals turned against him in the past week.
Opposition parties say they can handle the militant issue better than Saleh, who they say has made deals with militants in the past to avoid provoking Yemen’s Islamists.