Tens of thousands of protesters turned out in cities across Yemen Friday to call for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a remarkable show of determination after six months of demonstrations and armed clashes that have failed to topple the embattled leader.
In the lawless south of the country, security forces clashed with fighters near one of several towns under the control of al-Qaida-linked militants who have taken advantage of Yemen's political turmoil to expand their influence. Six soldiers and five militants were killed, a security official said.
Protesters in the capital, Sanaa, chanted, "We won't talk, we won't negotiate, victory is near!" while an army unit that has sided with the protesters provided protection and prevented a group of Saleh supporters from praying near the protest camp.
Across town, a smaller group of Saleh supporters rallied in support of the president.
Six months of mass protests have posed an unprecedented challenge to Saleh's 33-year rule, though the movement to topple him has reached a stalemate with the regime.
Saleh still rules, despite spending nearly two months outside the country for treatment of wounds he suffered in a bomb attack on his palace mosque. He has been able to hold on largely thanks to his loyal allies in the security forces. His son Ahmed commands the elite Republican Guard.
Saleh's aides insist he will return after completing his treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, security across the country has broken down, with armed tribesmen battling security forces in a number of places and al-Qaida-linked militants taking control of entire towns in the country's restive south.
Friday's fighting in the south took place near one of those towns, Zinjibar. The Yemeni army has been fighting to push them out. The security official who gave details of the fighting spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
A visiting U.N. envoy, Jamal bin Omar, urged Yemeni politicians to find a consensus to get out of the stalemate, warning of deteriorating humanitarian, economic and security conditions in Yemen, including shortages of fuel.
"It is time for all politicians to bear their responsibilities and reach a quick solution that ... answers the aspirations of the people, including the youth, as soon as possible to avoid a real crisis," he said.
Friday's protests were the last before the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. It remains unclear what affect the month will have on the protesters' ability to mobilize large numbers.
A preacher who addressed marchers in the town of Ibb after Friday prayers suggested the holy month could bring a breakthrough.
"We expect that during Ramadan, our brothers in the Republican Guard and Central Security will join the revolutionaries to finish toppling the rest of the regime," said Abdel-Salam al-Khadeiri.
Large protests were also held in Taiz, Hodeida, al-Mukalla and other places.