Security forces fired on anti-government protesters in Yemen's capital Sunday as hundreds of thousands of marchers _ including many women _ packed cities around the country to denounce the president and remarks he made against women taking part in rallies demanding his ouster.
The massive turnout suggests opposition forces have been able to tap into fresh outrage against Ali Abdullah Saleh after his comments Friday that mingling of men and women at protests violated Islamic law.
Meanwhile, representatives from Yemen's opposition held talks with regional mediators in the Saudi capital Sunday to discuss a proposal by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for ending the unrest in which Saleh would transfer power to his deputy.
The Yemeni opposition says nothing short of Saleh's immediate departure would end the unrest in the impoverished Gulf nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The GCC proposal also offers the president immunity from prosecution, which the opposition rejected.
Security forces opened fire on protesters in the capital on Sunday as marchers neared the office of the special forces, headed by Saleh's son. Witnesses said the forces fired live ammunition, and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Security agents chased protesters in side streets.
Mohammed el-Abahi, the head doctor at the protesters' field hospital, said at least 220 people were wounded, including 20 people hit by gunfire.
Witnesses said ambulances were prevented by security forces from reaching some of the wounded, many of whom were taken to a mosque.
Abdul-Malek al-Youssefi, an activist and a protest organizer, said the latest protest wave could well be "the last nail in Saleh's coffin."
A youth movement leading the anti-Salah protests called for mass demonstrations Sunday, dubbed a day of "honor and dignity" that brought out a strong outpouring of women upset at the president's comments on Friday.
"He aimed to provoke families and the society," said Arwa Shaher, a female activist. "But it has only increased our resolve to pursue the people's demands to ensure that this man, who is losing his mind day by day, goes."
A young woman first led anti-Saleh demonstrations on a university campus in late January, but women didn't begin taking part in large numbers until early March. It was a startling step in a nation with deeply conservative social and Islamic traditions.
But Saleh has clung to power despite the near-daily protests and defections by key allies in the military, powerful tribes and diplomatic corps amid calls to fight poverty and open up the country's restricted political life.
Security forces have launched fierce attacks on anti-government marches to try to protect Saleh's 32-year autocratic rule. Yemeni rights groups said the crackdown has killed more than 120 people, but it has not deterred crowds from gathering.
In the southern city of Damar, at least 18 people were injured in clashes with police and security agents after they fired tear gas, said medical officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of backlash from authorities. An activist in the city, Abdul-Rahman Ahmed, said shots were heard but it was unclear whether it was rubber bullets or live ammunition.
Elsewhere, more than 100,000 people took to the streets in Taiz, a hotbed of protests, and large demonstrations were mounted in the port of Aden and other cities.
Many saw Saleh's comments on women as an offense because they questioned women's honor and invoked religious tradition in an attempt to stem political outrage.
On Sunday, Saleh was shown on television meeting with dozens of women. He told them: "We don't doubt our daughters, or mothers or sisters. These women are dearer and more honorable than to be offended."
Saleh explained that what he said about mixing of the genders was out of fear that "mobs" would attack them.
Many Yemeni women remain out of sight and conceal themselves in public under black head-to-toe robes. The issue of child brides in Yemen has also drawn international criticism. But unlike in neighboring Saudi Arabia, women in Yemen are permitted to vote, run for parliament and drive cars.
Advocacy for women's rights in Yemen is rooted in the 1967-1990 period when the once-independent south had a socialist government. After unification, women in the south became more marginalized, resulting in high unemployment among female university graduates.