SANA'A // Yemen's protest movement increased pressure on the government yesterday as hundreds of thousands gathered in the capital and other cities to repeat cries for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
It required a huge security presence from both sides to keep the massive opposition group apart from tens of thousands of pro-Saleh demonstrators that also flooded the streets of Sana'a. The capital was completely divided along political lines yesterday, according to witnesses, and protest leaders have promised to march to the presidential palace in coming days.
The opposing protests went off without violence except five minor injuries in the port city of Hodiedah where Saleh supporters hurled stones at anti-government protesters.
Dozens were wounded on Thursday evening in the western province of Hajja after armed government supporters and police fired gun shots and tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters, according to local sources.
Many mosques in the capital shut down as worshippers and clerics streamed to the protest site at Al Tagheer Square outside Sana'a University.
In what was dubbed the "Friday of Salvation", protesters also staged marches, sit-ins and rallies in 15 outlying provinces. In the main protest site in Sana'a, demonstrators chanted "Hey, Ali get out", "The people want the end of this regime" and "We want the trial of the mass killer".
In another part of Sana'a, however, tens of thousands pro-regime demonstrators gathered for what they called the "Day of Brotherhood" to express loyalty to Mr Saleh.
State media broadcast live coverage of this rally held at Al Sabeen Square near the presidential palace where security troops and soldiers were deployed heavily with armoured vehicles. Several streets leading to the site were blocked.
In a short televised statement, Mr Saleh said: "I promise to sacrifice my blood and soul for the great Yemeni people."
Yet anti-Saleh protests have continued to gain momentum since Major Gen Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a former close confidante of Mr Saleh and commander of the 1st Armoured Division, joined the protest movement on March 19.
The defection of Gen Mohsen, which has followed by the resignations of dozens of military chiefs, diplomats, cabinet ministers, party leaders and businessmen, come after a government crackdown after Friday prayers two weeks ago killed at least 53 protesters.
The attack on demonstrators, including sniper fire and live rounds fired by police, was broadly condemned and served to galvanise the then-disparate opposition movement.
Imam Taha al Mutawakil, the cleric who delivered yesterday's sermon to the opposition crowd, told protesters that defiance of Mr Saleh has united all the Yemeni people.
"You have faced their bullets with your bare chests. There is no legitimacy in a constitution written by the Saleh regime or his tanks or support from the West or East. The legitimacy comes from you," Imam al Mutawakil told the massive crowd that prayed together at the sprawling protest site. One witness said the worshippers "stretched for several kilometres".
Troops from the 1st Armoured Division took up positions on rooftops and entry points to the square in an effort to protect the protesters and they prayed and rallied throughout yesterday.
Anti-government leaders have accused Mr Saleh of wasting billions of Yemeni rials to buy the loyalties of his remaining allies and tribal leaders. They claim he has bussed in thousands of rural Yemenis to boost the pro-government demonstrations. In a statement on Thursday, protest leaders urged the Central Bank and other local banks to stop accepting withdrawals of the president and government officials.
The show of strength from both camps comes after talks between Mr Saleh and his opponents on an peaceful transfer of power broke down last week when Mr Saleh insisted that his sons and relatives would retain their key military and security positions should he agree to step down.
In another statement released on Thursday, the protesters criticised the comments of Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, who said that Mr Saleh's removal would pose "a real problem" for US counter-terrorism work in Yemen, which is known to have an active al Qa'eda network. The opposition statement called Mr Gates remarks "a go-ahead sign for him to proceed with committing further crimes against humanity, whose victims are peaceful protesters seeking justice, development, and aspiring for peace and security".
Some sources, however, have suggested that the patience of some Western powers for Mr Saleh is running out.
"The president needs to take concrete steps now to show that he is ready for an orderly transition and an honourable exit," said a Western diplomat who refused to be named.
At the protest camp yesterday, Imam al Mutawakil used his sermon to explain that Mr Saleh's time in power is slipping away.
"We've had 33 years of hunger and crises," the cleric told the crowd.
"No power on earth can bring a leader back to his throne, if he has fallen in the eyes of his people."
* With additional reporting by Associated Press