- 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.

The remarks recalled a similar statement by ex-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who said at one point that he wanted to resign but couldn’t for fear the country would sink into chaos. Mubarak was ousted after an 18-day uprising that has inspired protesters in Yemen and several other countries to demand change.

Security forces parked tanks and military vehicles close to the palace and beefed up their presence around Saleh’s ruling party building and the interior ministry.

As he spoke, Saleh’s forces tried to prevent more anti-government demonstrators from entering Sanaa. Troops manning checkpoints on roads leading to the capital searched cars, trying to identify protesters, said a demonstrator who was turned away, Hamid al-Hawlani.

“We were in a car of some 25 people, but soldiers told us that the capital was closed,” said al-Hawlani, whose tribe has joined anti-Saleh protests. “They said we could come after the protests end.”

Protesters who had called for a million people to gather in Sanaa on Friday — the holiest day of the Muslim week, where believers traditionally congregate in mosques — also stepped up security around the downtown square where they have held demonstrations for weeks.

Saleh is already under a great deal of pressure. Following last Friday’s killings, senior military commanders, lawmakers, Cabinet ministers, diplomats and provincial governors jumped ship and sided with protesters.

His opponents said they would stay put in the downtown traffic circle they have optimistically renamed “Taghyir Square” — Arabic for “Change” square.

Weeks-old tents were emblazoned with the pictures of demonstrators killed last week. Volunteers handed out the red cards, which in this football-crazy nation was an obvious symbol of somebody who must be kicked off the field. Men and women were searched separately.

Many demonstrators wrapped red bandannas around their heads with the word “leave,” while children had their faces painted in the red-white-and-black colors of the Yemeni flag.

“We are at a crossroads today!” a man shouted into a loudspeaker, with amplifiers strung across the areas. “May God make us victorious against these corrupt oppressors!”

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