Thousands of Yemenis call on president to quit

SANAA, Hammoud Mounassar- Thousands of Yemenis, apparently inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, held a mass demonstration on Thursday calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit after holding power since 1978.
It came a day after a 28-year-old man set fire to himself in the port city of Aden, the ex-capital of the the formerly independent south, witnesses said. That brought to four the number of such copycat self-immolation attempts in the Arab world's poorest nation.

The United States, which has played an increasingly active role in efforts to stem Al-Qaeda's use of the Arab world's poorest nation as a rear-base for its worldwide activities, said it backed the right to peaceful protest.
Washington backs the right of Yemenis to "express themselves and assemble freely," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters, echoing the message that it has been delivering to key Arab ally Egypt.
"Enough being in power for (over) 30 years," chanted protesters in demonstrations staged by the Common Forum opposition in four different parts of the capital Sanaa.
In reference to the ouster of veteran Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the demonstrators said he was "gone in just (over) 20 years."
But Interior Minister Motahar Rashad al-Masri dismissed any resemblance between the protests in Yemen and the public outcry in the North African country that led to Ben Ali's departure.
"Yemen is not like Tunisia," he told AFP, adding that Yemen was a "democratic country" and that the demonstrations were peaceful.
Witnesses said that during protests on Wednesday a bus station employee set fire to himself in a central square in Aden and was only saved from death by the swift action of passers-by who put out the flames.
Medics said he remained in intensive care after suffering extensive burns. He was at least the fourth such protester, security sources said.
A 45-year-old who poured petrol on himself in the southeastern province of Hadramawt on January 20 died of his injuries, the only fatality so far.
Slogans chanted during Thursday's demonstration in the capital Sanaa were firm in demanding Saleh's departure.
"No to extending (presidential tenure). No to bequeathing (the presidency)," chanted demonstrators, insisting that it was "time for change."
Security measures at the demonstrations appeared relaxed, but were tight around the interior ministry and the central bank.
Saleh's ruling General People's Congress (GPC), meanwhile, organised four simultaneous counter-demonstrations which were attended by thousands of the government's backers.
"No to toppling democracy and the constitution," the president's supporters said on their banners.
On Saturday, hundreds of Sanaa University students held counter protests on campus, with some calling for Saleh to step down and others for him to remain in office.
Saleh, who has been president for decades, was re-elected in September 2006 for a seven-year mandate.
A draft amendment of the constitution, under discussion in parliament despite opposition protests, could allow him -- if passed -- to remain in office for life.
Saleh had urged the opposition which rejected the amendment to take part in April 27 parliamentary elections to avoid "political suicide."
The mandate of the current parliament was extended by two years to April under a February 2009 agreement between the GPC and opposition parties to allow dialogue on political reform.
The reforms on the table included a shift from a presidential regime to a proportional representation parliamentary system and further decentralisation of government -- measures that have not been implemented.
The dialogue has stalled, and a special committee set up to oversee reform has met only once.
Saleh is also accused of wanting to pass the reins of power in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state to his eldest son Ahmed, who heads the elite Presidential Guard.
But in a televised address on Sunday, Saleh denied such accusations.
"We are a republic. We reject bequeathing (the presidency)", he said.

Thursday, January 27th 2011
Hammoud Mounassar

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