By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Yemen on Friday, trying to draw record crowds to show President Ali Abdullah Saleh his offers of reform would not soften their demand for his resignation.
At Sanaa University, the launchpad for protests in the capital, Yemenis flooded the streets, even cramming into tiny alleys, in crowds stretching back about two km (1.3 miles).
The demonstrations followed Thursday's proposal by Saleh, a U.S. ally against al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, for a new constitution to be put to referendum within the year and new electoral laws to ensure equal representation. Opposition figures rejected the offer, calling it "too little, too late."
Impoverished Yemen, a neighbor of oil giant Saudi Arabia, is one of several Arab states that has been rocked by protests this year, with Saleh looking increasingly weakened by unrest.
Protesters in Sanaa, many of whom brought their children in what the opposition has billed the "Friday of no return," said they were intent on his ending his 32-year grip on power.
Chanting slogans against Saleh, many held signs saying, "Leaving means leaving. There isn't a better option."
Saleh, whose failing state was already plagued by on-off rebellions in the north and south, has struggled to quell weeks of mass protests that have claimed almost 30 lives.
"The president said he doesn't want to leave power because he's afraid for the country, so he sent his love by shooting at you on Tuesday night. What would he do if he stayed in power?" Muslim preacher Abdulwehab al-Dilmy asked protesters in Sanaa.
In the capital's main Tahrir square, tens of thousands of Saleh loyalists, touting pictures of the 68-year-old leader, voiced their support, chanting "Yes to dialogue. No to chaos."
DEMANDS FOR CASH
As Yemen's water and oil resources dry up, it has become increasingly difficult for Saleh to fuel the patronage system that kept his tribal and political supporters loyal. At least a dozen former allies have joined the protesters in recent weeks.
In the central province of Maareb, residents told Reuters that hundreds of Yemenis took to the streets demanding payment for attending Saleh's speech in Sanaa on Thursday.
The local newspaper Maareb Press said participants had been promised 50,000 Yemeni riyals ($233), but when this was not paid, began shouting "The people demand the fall of the regime."
Protesters want an end to Saleh's autocratic system, in which his relatives and allies hold key posts. They are also frustrated with rampant corruption and soaring unemployment.
Some 40 percent of Yemen's 23 million people live on less than $2 a day and a third face chronic hunger.
Earlier on Friday, residents in Ibb, south of Sanaa, said masked men threw a grenade at the headquarters of a leading opposition party. No one was hurt.
The U.S. ambassador, in an interview with a state-backed magazine to be published on Saturday, encouraged protesters to engage in dialogue with the government on Yemen's future.
"Our question is always, if President Saleh leaves, then what do you do on the next day?" asked Gerald Feierstein.
The United States fears that Saleh's overthrow might lead to a power vacuum that would be exploited by Islamist militants in the Arabian Peninsula state, from which al Qaeda has launched attacks on Western and Saudi targets.