By Cynthia Johnston and Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - President Ali Abdullah Saleh said Friday he was ready to cede power to prevent more bloodshed in Yemen but only to what he called "safe hands" as a massive "Day of Departure" street protest against him began.
Western countries are alarmed that al Qaeda militants entrenched in the Arabian Peninsula country could exploit any chaos arising from a messy transition of power if Saleh, a pivotal U.S. and Saudi ally fighting for his political life, finally steps down after 32 years in office.
"We don't want power, but we need to hand power over to safe hands, not to sick, resentful or corrupt hands," Saleh said in a rousing speech to supporters shown on state television as tens of thousands of his foes rallied elsewhere in the capital Sanaa.
Thousands of Saleh supporters in Sanaa were also out early on the streets for what they dubbed the "Friday of Tolerance," with banners saying "No to chaos, yes to security and stability." Some were carrying guns and traditional Yemeni daggers, others were waving flags and playing patriotic songs.
"We are ready to leave power but only for safe hands," Saleh said. "We are against firing a single bullet and when we give concessions this is to ensure there is no bloodshed. We will remain steadfast and challenge them with all power we have."
Protesters encamped in their thousands outside Sanaa University for six weeks declared Friday a "Day of Departure" when they hoped to bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets in a further attempt to oust Saleh, a serial survivor of civil war, separatist movements and militant attacks.
Similar mass protests on March 18 left 52 people dead, apparently gunned down by plainclothes snipers. That bloodshed prompted a string of generals, diplomats and tribal leaders to abandon Saleh, severely weakening his position.
"The government cannot just shoot its way out of this crisis," Philip Luther, Amnesty's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement. "Whether in uniform or in plainclothes, security forces must be immediately stopped from using live ammunition on unarmed protesters."
SALEH MEETS DISSIDENT TOP GENERAL
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Saleh and top general Ali Mohsen -- the most significant of this week's defectors -- were hashing out a deal whereby both men resign within days to allow a civilian transitional government.
A spokesman for Saleh denied the report but said Saleh had held a meeting over the past 48 hours with the general. "Ali Mohsen clarified why he did what he did and requested assurances that nothing would happen against him," Ahmed al-Sufi said.
Saleh was defiant in a speech Thursday, offering only an amnesty to defecting troops at a meeting with commanders.
Soldiers loyal to Mohsen fired in the air later Friday to prevent a crowd of Saleh supporters from reaching the anti-government protest where tens of thousands were rallying.
Security was tight, as the army conducted five separate checks on people entering the zone Friday morning.
Positions have hardened since last Friday's bloodshed.
"I came here to get rid of this butcher because he killed our comrades," said Abdullah Jabali, 33, a student, who said he did not believe Saleh's promises to stand down within a year.
"I just want this president and his family to leave peacefully, not to leave the country but to step down," said Mahdi Mohammed, 36, a translator from Aden.
Shortly before Saleh spoke, mosque preacher Tawhib al-Doba'i praised protesters for keeping up the pressure.
"You have achieved so much in Taghyeer (Change) Square. God's wisdom was that the people of Yemen should stay in the street for weeks, for dignity to take the place of humiliation," he told worshippers outside Sanaa University.
Saleh, who oversaw the 1990 unification of north and south Yemen and emerged victorious from a civil war four years later, has shown no signs publicly of being prepared to quit now.
He has offered a string of concessions, all rejected by opposition parties, including this week to hold presidential elections by January 2012. He has also warned military officers who have turned against him not to plot a coup.
Washington and Riyadh, Yemen's main financial backer, have long seen Saleh as a bulwark against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has tried to stage attacks beyond Yemeni soil since 2009 in both Saudi Arabia and United States.
"The chaos of a post-Saleh Yemen in which there is no managed transition may lead to conditions that could allow AQAP and other extremist elements to flourish," analyst Christopher Boucek said in a forthcoming issue of the militant affairs periodical CTC Sentinel.
Yemen lies on key shipping routes and borders the world's leading oil exporter Saudi Arabia. It has often seemed to be on the brink of disintegration: Northern Shi'ites often taken up arms against Saleh and southerners dream of a separate state.
With no clear successor in line and with conflicts gripping northern and southern Yemen, the country of 23 million faces the risk of a breakup, in addition to poverty, a water shortage, dwindling oil reserves and lack of central government control.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Mark Heinrich)