- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2011

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Facing growing calls for his resignation, Yemen’s longtime ruler told tens of thousands of supporters Friday that he’s ready to step down but only if he can leave the country in “safe hands,” while anti-government protesters massed for a rival rally.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh spoke in a rare appearance before a cheering crowd outside his presidential palace in the Yemeni capital.

Across town, an even larger number of people converged on a square in front of Sanaa University chanting slogans calling for his ouster and waving red cards emblazoned with the word “leave” despite fears of more violence a week after government security forces shot dead more than 40 demonstrators in the capital.

Pro-demonstrator forces clutched assault rifles as they patrolled the square. Hundreds of people lined up to be searched before entering, many clad in white robes and turbans, with prayer mats tossed over their shoulders for noontime prayers.

“We are trying to gather as many people as possible here. He needs more pressure to leave,” said demonstrator Magid Abbas, a 29-year-old physician. “We have great hopes.”

The bloodshed last Friday prompted a wave of defections by military commanders, ruling party members and others, swelling the ranks of the opposition and leaving the president isolated.

Saleh also imposed a state of emergency last week that allows media censorship, gives wide powers to censor mail, tap phone lines, search homes and arrest and detain suspects without judicial process.

The president, who has held power for more than three decades, has repeatedly sought to appease the protesters to no avail.

Over the past month, he has offered not to run again when his current term ends in 2013, then promised to step down by the end of the year and open a dialogue with the leaders of the demonstrators. That offer was rejected as too little, too late.

Instead protesters have hardened their demands, with youth groups calling for constitutional change and the dissolution of parliament, local councils and the notorious security agencies in addition to the immediate ouster of the president.

Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a top military official who defected to the opposition this week, met privately with Saleh Thursday to suggest ways he could leave power, an aide who attended the meeting said.

Saleh rejected the offer, lashing out instead out at the protesters threatening his 32-year rule and promising to “cling to constitutional legitimacy” and to use “all means possible” to protect the country.

He appeared to soften his tone on Friday but his harsh descriptions of his opposition suggested continued defiance.

“We in leadership, we don’t want power but we need to hand it over to trustful hands, not to sick, hateful, corrupt, collaborator hands,” Saleh told his supporters, who carried pictures of the president and signs reading “No to terrorism!”

“We are ready to leave, but we want to do it properly and at the hands of our people who should choose their leaders,” he said, calling the opposition a small minority of drug dealers, rebels and illegal money traders.

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