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Yemen president refuses to step down

Dissenters in areas of unrest keep up pressure

By Amhed Al-Haj
Associated Press / February 22, 2011

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SANA, Yemen — Yemen’s embattled leader yesterday rejected demands that he step down, calling demonstrations against his regime unacceptable acts of provocation and offering to begin a dialogue with protesters.

However, protests seeking President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster did not let up. Tens of thousands rallied in four cities, including the capital of Sana. Demonstrators said they would not leave fledgling encampments in central squares until he has left office.

An opposition spokesman rebuffed Saleh’s offer of dialogue and an influential group of Muslim clerics called for a national unity government that would lead the country to elections. Saleh has been in power 32 years.

At least 11 people have been killed since antigovernment protests erupted this month, including a youth shot dead yesterday, medical officials said. In an attempt to defuse anger over the violence, Saleh told a news conference that he has ordered troops not to fire at antigovernment protesters, except in self-defense.

The demonstrations in Yemen, the poorest Arab nation, are part of a wave of unrest that has swept across the Arab world in recent weeks and toppled autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

Saleh’s government was already weak before the protests, facing a southern separatist movement and disaffected tribesmen around the country. Saleh is quietly cooperating with the US in efforts to battle an Al Qaeda franchise that has taken root in Yemen, but his government exercises limited control in the tribal areas beyond the capital. The US gives Yemen military aid and training.

Despite Saleh’s gestures, protesters are digging in. Several hundred camped overnight in a square in the capital of Sana, near the city’s university, where their numbers swelled during the day.

At one point, Adam al-Hameeri, a soldier, told the crowd that he had joined them because he felt the government had neglected the armed forces and pushed them into unnecessary wars.

Several tribal leaders also joined the protest. The sheiks’ presence in the square indicated the limited success of Saleh’s efforts early in the unrest to win over leaders in the tribes that dominate Yemeni society. One of the leaders, Sheik Khalid Al-Awadi, said he and the others had come to support the protesters’ “noble goals.’’

Similar to the scenes in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the epicenter of the Egyptian uprising, protesters in Sana pitched small tents and set up a platform equipped with loudspeakers. Protesters guarded access roads and searched those entering the square.

In the city of Taiz, tens of thousands of protesters rallied in the central square. “We will not leave this place until the downfall of the regime,’’ activist Ahmed Ghilan said.

Thousands also rallied in the port city of Aden. Police fired in the air to disperse demonstrators in one area, while they collected in public squares in others, some planning to camp out.

A large rally was also reported in the city of Saada, near the Saudi border. The area has seen fighting between government forces and Shi’ite rebels who oppose government control of their area.

Saleh asserted that government opponents are a small minority and that those who want to see him leave should compete in elections. The next scheduled vote is in 2013.

Tunisia The country named its third interim foreign minister in a month after the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the longtime president. Tunisia’s official news agency, TAP, said Mouldi Kefi, a career diplomat, has taken the post.

Tunisia’s government has asked Saudi Arabia whether its exiled former president is dead, and demanded his extradition if he is still alive, as thousands of people protested in the capital demanding that the caretaker government resigns.

The 74-year-old Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 after 23 years of rule.

Morocco Five burned bodies were found in a Rabat bank set aflame by troublemakers on the sidelines of one of many nationwide protests pushing for more democracy in the kingdom.

Morocco’s interior minister, Taeib Cherqaoui, said at least 128 people were injured — mostly security forces — in unrest linked to protests a day earlier that drew 37,000 demonstrators in dozens of towns and cities.

Bahrain A prominent opposition figure accused by Bahrain of plotting against the state plans to return from London, and the move could bolster protesters and force authorities into difficult choices.

Hassan Meshaima, head of a group known as Haq, is set to arrive late today as the embattled monarchy tries to engage demonstrators in talks aimed at easing the weeklong series of clashes and marches that have deeply divided the strategic Gulf nation.

Meshaima, considered by Bahrain’s officials as a potential enemy of the state, along with another London-based opposition leader are being tried in absentia among a total of 25 Shi’ite activists accused of plotting to overthrow Bahrain’s Sunni rulers.

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