Thousands march in Sana'a to demand Yemen's Saleh quits

In demonstrations staged by the Common Forum opposition in four different parts of the capital, protesters chanted: 'Enough being in power for 30 years.'

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SANAA // Thousands of Yemenis, apparently inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, staged a mass demonstration today calling on the country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to quit after being in power since 1978.

In demonstrations staged by the Common Forum opposition in four different parts of the capital, Sana'a, protesters chanted: "Enough being in power for 30 years."

In reference to the ousting of the Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the demonstrators said he was "gone in just 20 years."

The Yemeni interior minister, Motahar Rashad al Masri, ruled out any resemblance between the protests in Yemen and the public outcry in Tunisia that led to Mr 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.

However the slogans chanted in Thursday's Sanaa demonstration which lasted for two hours were firm in demanding the departure of Saleh.

"No to extending [presidential tenure]. No to bequeathing [the presidency]," demonstrators chanted, insisting that it was "time for change."

Banners carried in the protests proclaimed: "Common Forum go ahead. It is time for change".

An MP for the opposition Al Islah (Reform) party, Abdulmalik al Qasuss, echoed the demands of the protesters when he addressed them.

"We gather today to demand the departure of President Saleh and his corrupt government," he said.

A Common Forum activist said that the staging of the demonstration in four separate parts of the capital was aimed at distracting the security forces.

One area chosen for the protest was outside Sana'a University.

Security measures at the demonstrations appeared relaxed, but were tight around the interior ministry and the central bank.

Mr 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 Sana'a University students held counter-protests on campus, with some calling for Mr 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.

Mr Saleh had urged the opposition, which rejected the amendment, to take part in parliamentary elections due to take place on April 27 to avoid "political suicide."

The mandate of the current parliament was extended by two years to April under an agreement in February 2009 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.

Mr Saleh is also accused of wanting to pass the reins of power in Yemen to his eldest son Ahmed, who heads the elite Presidential Guard. But in a televised address on Sunday, Mr Saleh denied such accusations.

"We are a republic. We reject bequeathing [the presidency]," he said.