By Cynthia Johnston and Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh would be allowed to live a secure and dignified life in Yemen if he steps down peacefully after three decades in power, an opposition leader said on Tuesday.
Yassin Noman, rotating head of Yemen's opposition coalition, said Saleh should avoid a violent fight to remain in power that could tear the country apart and lead to more instability in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state.
"He shouldn't follow the style of (Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi by destroying the country and killing people. After this long term of governing, he should say: Thank you, my people, I leave you peacefully," Noman told Reuters.
Top generals, ambassadors and some tribes have thrown their support behind Yemen's anti-government protesters, deserting Saleh after police including rooftop snipers shot dead 52 anti-government protesters after Muslim prayers on Friday.
The United States has long seen Saleh as a key ally, fighting a growing al Qaeda presence that also threatens its oil exporter neighbor Saudi Arabia.
Saleh, who has called a state of emergency and sacked his cabinet after the violence, said he would hand over power by January 2012 after parliamentary elections but did not want to leave without knowing who would take over, a media aide said.
"I know the morality of Yemeni people. If he left peacefully, they will look at him as a real leader. He will be able to live wherever he likes," said Noman, an economist who is also head of the Yemeni Socialist Party.
"They will ensure him a very nice life. His dignity will be kept."
An opposition spokesman rejected Saleh's offer to leave by January 2012, saying the coming hours would be decisive. Saleh had previously promised to leave when his term ends in 2013.
RISKS OF VIOLENCE
The mood of protesters has hardened since the violence and after a key general, Ali Mohsen, with a camp adjacent to the protest area, backed demonstrators. Some now say they want a trial for anyone responsible for the deaths, including Saleh.
Noman, from Lahj in southern Yemen, said he was concerned that violence could spiral out of control as some generals appeared to back the protesters while the defense minister said the army remained loyal to the president.
"If they don't think carefully and start just to threaten by using military forces and violence, I think it will break all over in the country. Not just in Sanaa. Everywhere," he said.
"It will cost a lot. It will not be restricted in the army only. I think it will go over all the country, even the tribes. All people here have weapons," Noman added.
Noman was the last prime minister of an independent southern state before north and south Yemen were unified under Saleh's rule in 1990, and Noman spent several years in exile after a 1994 secessionist rebellion that was quashed by Sanaa.
He said he did not think the current crisis would descend into a full-fledged civil war. Saleh is already struggling to cement peace with northern Shi'ite rebels and quell separatism in the south, all while fighting al Qaeda militants who have formed an Arabian Peninsula wing in Yemen.
On Monday, Saleh asked Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to mediate and state media said he had dispatched his foreign minister to Riyadh with a message for Saudi leaders. But the sides were sticking to their positions.
"We talk. We always talk. But I think all the outlets are closed now," Noman said. "The decision is in his hands."
(Writing by Cynthia Johnston; editing by Ralph Boulton)