Balloons carry Yemen's protest message: Leave, Ali
SANAA, Yemen – Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis seeking their president's ouster found a new way to get their message across on Friday, releasing balloons that drifted over the presidential palace with the message "Leave, Ali" painted on them.
The tens of thousands of colorful balloons were blown across the capital and over top of the palace, where a smaller rally of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's supporters listened to the embattled leader deliver a message of his own denouncing his opponents as terrorists, looters and killers.
Saleh has refused to put an end to his 32 years in power despite tremendous pressure from three months of street demonstrations and from neighboring Arab nations fearful that Yemen's growing instability could spill into their wealthy oil-producing lands.
What began as a sit-in on a university campus in the capital, Sanaa, has grown into demonstrations by hundreds of thousands across the country. Like the other Arab leaders forced from power or under threat in the Arab world's uprisings, Saleh has used a mix of concessions and brutal force to try to quell the outpouring. Despite the killings of more than 140 protesters, the crowds continue to gather.
Rival rallies by Saleh's supporters and opponents have become a fixture in the capital on Fridays, although the anti-Saleh crowds far outnumber those of his backers.
This Friday, the anti-Saleh rally was dubbed a "Day of Gratitude to the South" to honor southerners who in 2007 renewed their own protests against what they say is government neglect of their once-independent region.
Those protests swelled into a full-scale secessionist movement, one of several key security challenges testing Saleh's rule even before the nationwide anti-government protests broke out in early February.
Among the other threats are the deadly al-Qaida offshoot that took refuge in the country in recent years and an on-and-off armed rebellion in the north. Yemen is also the Arab world's poorest nation and is wracked by corruption and unemployment.
Protesters in the capital on Friday again occupied a five-mile (eight-kilometer) section of a major western boulevard and released balloons in the red, black and white colors of the flag with the anti-Saleh protest cry of "Leave, Ali" written on them.
Demonstrators then turned south, where tens of thousands of Saleh supporters were rallying outside the presidential palace and chanted for him to go. "The people want the end of the regime," they shouted, using the slogan first heard in Tunisia and later around the Arab world.
Meanwhile, Saleh briefly addressed his supporters.
"You say 'yes' to the regime, 'no' to chaos, 'no' to revenge, 'no' to hatred," Saleh said. About his opponents, he added: "These are outlaws. They are against the regime. They are looters. They are terrorists. They are killers."
Saleh has spurned mediation efforts by a bloc of powerful Gulf countries that would have had him relinquish power in return for immunity from prosecution.
The mediation plan put forward by six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council looked close to success a week ago, with both the opposition political parties and Saleh agreeing to it, until the president balked just days before the signing ceremony.
The plan called for Saleh to step down within 30 days and for a national unity government to run the country until elections are held.
Saleh in his speech Friday made no mention of the initiative.
A senior Saleh aid told The Associated Press that the president now wants revisions to the deal that would ensure an end to the protests.
That would be difficult to work out because leaders of the street protests did not participate in the talks and reject anything short of Saleh's immediate departure and trial over corruption and the killings of protesters. They say the opposition's established political parties, which have taken part in the talks, do not represent them.
The aid said the president also wants the deal to include a return of army commanders and soldiers who defected to the opposition.
The aid, who is also a senior ruling party official, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, general secretary of the Gulf Cooperation Council told journalists on Thursday that no changes would be made to the proposal.
The protests have posed the most serious threat to Saleh's rule and his offered concessions, including that he not run again in the 2013 election or allow his son to succeed him, have failed to quiet the protests.
Saleh has continued to cling to power thanks in part to the key backing of Yemen's best trained and equipped military units, which are under the command of one of his sons and other close relatives.