Yemen protests hit Saleh fiefdom, military in Sanaa

Reuters News
|
Posted: Mar 18, 2011 4:45 PM

By Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni protests demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule spread to a tribal area considered his political stronghold on Tuesday, and military vehicles deployed in the capital.

Around 10,000 protesters marched in the city of Dhamar, 60 km (40 miles) south of Sanaa, residents said by telephone. Dhamar is known for ties to Saleh and is the hometown of Yemen's prime minister, interior minister and head judge.

"Leave! leave!" the protesters shouted in Dhamar, just two days after Saleh loyalists there held a similar-sized rally. Protesters also pelted a municipal official with rocks.

Burgeoning protests fueled by anger over poverty and corruption, and a series of defections from Saleh's political and tribal allies, have added pressure on him to step aside this year even as he pledges to stay on until his term ends in 2013.

"Across the board, what you're seeing is that more and more people are really starting to crystallize around this single call for the president to step down," Princeton University Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen said.

In the capital Sanaa, where thousands of protesters have camped out for weeks, military vehicles with armed soldiers spread across streets in what appeared to be a response to calls by youth activists for a march to the presidential palace.

Police brought out water cannon and placed concrete blocks around Sanaa University, the rallying point for anti-Saleh protest that had been quiet in recent days, after weeks of fierce clashes across the country between government loyalists and protesters killed at least 27 people.

Yemen, neighbor to oil giant Saudi Arabia, was teetering on the brink of failed statehood even before recent protests. Saleh has struggled to cement a truce with Shi'ite Muslim rebels in the north and curb secessionist rebellion in the south, all while fighting al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing.

MINISTER BLAMES POOR ECONOMY

Analysts say protests may be reaching a point where it will be difficult for Saleh to cling to power.

In what could add to popular anger, two Yemeni rights groups said two prisoners had died after security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to halt a prison riot in Sanaa on Monday.

Yemen's foreign minister blamed growing protests on poor economic conditions. Some 40 percent of Yemen's 23 million people live on $2 a day or less and a third face chronic hunger. Abubakr al-Qirbi said he wanted foreign donors to inject up to $6 billion to fill a five-year budget gap.

"What we need is really development and economic growth because the present political crisis is really as a result of the economic situation in Yemen," he said at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers' meeting on Monday in Abu Dhabi.

Protesters, who are demanding greater participation in a government largely led by Saleh's closest allies, say they are frustrated by rampant corruption and soaring unemployment, which is at 35 percent or higher.

Princeton's Johnsen said calls for foreign aid where a tactical move by Saleh to buy time to divide the protesters.

"Yemen wants more money to come in and Saleh wants to try and fragment the protesters as much as he can. President Saleh is trying to string this out as long as possible in the hopes he can pit different interest groups against one another" he said.

Last week, Saleh rejected a plan by the opposition coalition which would have implemented political and electoral reforms paving the way for him to step down in 2011, instead accepting a more modest reform package from religious clerics.

Thousands of primary and secondary students marched in the southern provinces of Shabwa, Aden and Lahaj on Tuesday. UNICEF said earlier it was concerned some protesters were threatening students to join protests.

"No studying, no teaching until the president falls," they shouted, echoing a chant started earlier in the day by university students in Ibb, south of the capital.

In Ibb, protesters marched through the streets to denounce a Sunday attack against an anti-government protest camp by Saleh loyalists. Some 60 people were wounded in the melee, and Omar Atta, 18, died from his injuries on Monday night.

"My son sacrificed himself, this is my family's gift to the revolution in Yemen," his father said in a tearful speech to protesters in Ibb on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Mahmoud Habboush in Abu Dhabi; Additional reporting and writing by Erika Solomon and Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Diana Abdallah)