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YEMEN: Huge protest calls for president to step down

March 11, 2011 |  8:17 am

Nearly 100,000 men, women and children flooded the streets of Yemen's capital Friday for the largest demonstration yet in the effort to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

Saleh has retained control for 33 years with an effective mix of compromise, false promises and well-dispensed largesse, but some feared he was heading toward a potentially dangerous political stalemate. 

Key opposition leaders, buttressed by the mass demonstration in Sana, said they would not accept anything but Saleh’s immediate ouster; Saleh, it appeared, would accept anything but that.

“Something has to happen soon. There’s no other way,” said Anwar Kabuti, a student who attended the protest Friday, billed by organizers as “The Friday of No Return.”

“After giving our blood for our freedom, do you think all these people will just go home?” he asked.

Many protesters Friday held posters of the young men who have been killed in recent weeks, calling them “martyrs for freedom.” Two protesters were killed Tuesday when the army fired live ammunition and teargas into a demonstration in front of Sana'a University, according to medics on the scene. More than 30 protesters have died in Yemen since protests began early last month, according to human rights groups.

In a statement Thursday, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton echoed the fears of many in the international community, urging Yemeni opposition and the ruling party to engage in meaningful dialogue before it’s too late. “Violence must stop and all sides must show calm and restraint,” the statement said. 

Some political analysts in Yemen worry that if Saleh cannot strike a political deal with Yemeni opposition leaders and protesters on the street, civil war may break out. The country has a combustible mix of well-armed tribal factions and government security forces that are subject to schisms along tribal and family lines.

“I think there will be violence. I don’t like to say it, but I think there will be,” said Mohammed Mahdi, an activist from Aden, a port city in Yemen’s south. “It seems unavoidable.”

At Friday’s protest in Sana, men, women and children –- the words “leave” and “get out” scrawled with marker in Arabic and English on their foreheads –- gathered for a peaceful protest just before noon prayers.  For the first time this week, thousands of black-cloaked women have also been showing up en masse to protest, their eyes shining behind slits of black fabric. They occupied a small, cordoned-off section in the center of the square.

The men, their white robes and gold-holstered daggers shining in the noon sun, stood shoulder to shoulder in long rows stretching a half-mile in three directions down the T-shaped intersection in front of Sana’a University, the site of what has become the largest anti-government sit-in in Yemen. Children, dressed up in the red, white and black of Yemen’s tricolor, painted their faces and rode on their fathers’ shoulders, chanting “Leave! Leave! Leave, Ali [Abdullah Saleh]!” the unambiguous slogan of choice at the anti-Saleh demonstrations.

--Haley Sweetland Edwards in Sana, Yemen