Facing growing calls for his resignation, Yemen's longtime ruler told tens of thousands of supporters Friday that he's ready to step down but only if he can leave the country in "safe hands," while anti-government protesters massed for a rival rally.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh spoke in a rare appearance before a cheering crowd outside his presidential palace in the Yemeni capital.
Across town, an even larger number of people converged on a square in front of Sanaa University chanting slogans calling for his ouster and waving red cards emblazoned with the word "leave" despite fears of more violence a week after government security forces shot dead more than 40 demonstrators in the capital.
Protesters carried through the square the bodies of two protesters hit in last week's shooting who recently died of their wounds, their coffins draped with Yemeni flags. Demonstrators prayed over the bodies and chanted to the president, "Everyone who falls as a martyr shakes your throne, o Ali!" as the bodies were taken for burial.
Armed with assault rifles, soldiers from units that defected to the uprising patrolled the square to protect protesters. Hundreds of people lined up to be searched before entering, many clad in white robes and turbans, with prayer mats tossed over their shoulders for noontime prayers.
"We are trying to gather as many people as possible here. He needs more pressure to leave," said demonstrator Magid Abbas, a 29-year-old physician. "We have great hopes."
Thousands also marched in anti-government protests in two areas of the southern port city of Aden. Security forces dispersed one of the protests with tear gas, participants said.
The bloodshed last Friday prompted a wave of defections by military commanders, ruling party members and others, swelling the ranks of the opposition and leaving the president isolated.
Saleh, in power for nearly 32 years, responded by imposing a state of emergency that allows media censorship and gives authorities wide powers to search homes and arrest suspects without judicial process, censor mail and tap phone lines.
At the same time, he has made gestures trying to appease the protesters, to no avail. Over the past month, he has offered not to run again when his current term ends in 2013, then promised to step down by the end of the year and open a dialogue with the leaders of the demonstrators. That offer was rejected as too little, too late.
Instead protesters have hardened their demands, with youth groups calling for Saleh's immediate ouster, the rewriting of the constitution and the dissolution of parliament, local councils and the notorious security agencies.
Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a top military official who defected to the opposition this week, met privately with Saleh on Thursday to suggest ways he could leave power, an aide who attended the meeting said.
Saleh rejected the offer, lashing out instead out at the protesters and promising to "cling to constitutional legitimacy" and to use "all means possible" to protect the country.
He appeared to soften his tone on Friday but his harsh descriptions of his opposition suggested continued defiance.
"We in leadership, we don't want power but we need to hand it over to trustful hands, not to sick, hateful, corrupt, collaborator hands," Saleh told his supporters, who carried pictures of the president and signs reading "No to terrorism!"
"We are ready to leave, but we want to do it properly and at the hands of our people who should choose their leaders," he said, calling the opposition a small minority of drug dealers, rebels and illegal money traders.
The remarks recalled a similar statement by ex-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who, during the height of the 18-day uprising against his rule, said that he wanted to resign but couldn't for fear the country would sink into chaos. Not long after, Mubarak was ousted on Feb. 11, chased out by protesters who have inspired similar uprisings demanding change in Yemen and several other countries.
Who might take power after Saleh is of particular consequence to the United States, which has depended on him for cooperation in fighting the Yemen-based al-Qaida offshoot that the Obama administration considers the most serious terrorist threat to the U.S.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner noted Saleh's pledge to engage in a peaceful transition of power and said the U.S. now wanted all sides in Yemen to participate in a meaningful dialogue.
"The timing and the form of this transition should be identified, we believe, through dialogue and negotiation," he told journalists. "This includes genuine participation by all sides in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people."
Reflecting a gradual crumbling of Saleh's authority across the country, residents of towns in five provinces have taken over local security from police, in some cases stripping them of their guns before letting them leave.
"We have formed popular committees in all the city's neighborhoods and streets to protect the houses since police left," said activist Nasser Baqazqouz in the southern port city of Mukalla.
Even members of a security force run by Saleh's son surrendered their guns to residents in three towns in Abyan province, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Washington.