Huge Rival Demos Split Yemen Capital in Two

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Huge rival protests split the Yemeni capital as security forces staged an unprecedented deployment in another Friday showdown on the streets between supporters and opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Amid fears of an outbreak of violence, tens of thousands of pro-regime supporters waving flags and banners gathered in squares around Sanaa, passing through checkpoints set up by security forces kitted with guns and batons.

Convoys of cars flying the Yemeni flag earlier poured into the capital from the surrounding countryside for the pro-Saleh rally. "The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh," they chanted.

In a deeply tribal society, many of the demonstrators carried large portraits of the 69-year-old president in tribal headdress rather than his customary suit and tie.

The army, many of whose officers have rallied with the pro-democracy camp led by youths, controlled access to the "Change Square" renamed by anti-regime protesters near Sanaa University.

The demonstrators, who also numbered tens of thousands on the weekly day of prayers and rest, have set up camp in the area since late February.

In Tahrir Square, about two kilometers away, security forces tried to channel the influx of regime supporters, many of them tribesmen mobilized by the president, a former military man.

A four to five kilometer stretch leading to Sabiine Square, next to Saleh's palace, and away from the rival protest, filled rapidly with his supporters for a show of solidarity after a spirited sermon and prayers at Tahrir.

Saleh himself was at the scene but it was not immediately clear if he would address his supporters, as he did the previous Friday.

Roads leading to the venues were blocked by security forces, with Sanaa roughly divided into a northern half held by the opposition camp and Saleh's supporters packing the southern sector.

On March 18, regime loyalists gunned down 52 demonstrators but amid fears of a repeat last Friday police kept rival demonstrators apart by firing warning shots in the air.

Since the bloodbath, which sparked widespread condemnation, the regime has been hit by a wave of defections, including among the ranks of the military which now has rival units deployed on the streets of Sanaa.

The pro-democracy protesters, pressing for an end to Saleh's three-decade rule, called off a planned march on the presidential palace on Friday for fear of renewed carnage.

"We don't want a confrontation with the president's supporters," Adel al-Walibi, a leader of the protests, told AFP. Many of them would be "out-of-uniform soldiers and armed tribesmen".

He said the protesters would hold marches around the square and sit-ins outside key installations in the capital.

Britain on Thursday urged its remaining citizens to leave Yemen immediately "in light of the rapid deterioration in the security situation in Yemen ... while commercial airlines are still flying".

Under the weight of protests, which Amnesty said have cost 95 lives in clashes with security forces, Saleh had offered to step down early but has hardened his stance since the massive pro-regime rally last Friday.

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