SANAA (Reuters) - Fighting broke out between small groups of government supporters and protesters on Friday as record crowds of tens of thousands called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit, dismissing his offer of reforms.
Yemenis flooded streets and alleys around Sanaa University in the biggest protest to hit the capital since demonstrations began in January. About 30 people have been killed since then.
Outside the university dozens of people from both camps hurled rocks at each other as residents fired shots in the air to try and break up fighting. Protesters nearby told Reuters about ten people were being treated for minor injuries.
Several thousand Saleh loyalists also crammed Sanaa’s Tahrir Square, touting pictures of the veteran leader.
“Your duty is to guard stability, I know many of you are suffering economic hardship, but we Muslims are different. Income comes from God and prayer,” a preacher told them.
But loyalist numbers were dwarfed by the anti-government crowd, which Reuters reporters put at more than 40,000. Tens of thousands of protesters also marched in Taiz and Ibb, south of the capital.
In the southern port city of Aden, three people were wounded by gunfire and six were overcome by tear gas as police tried to disperse thousands of anti-government marchers. Elsewhere in the south, gunmen killed four soldiers on patrol in the city of Hajarain, officials said, blaming al Qaeda.
A wave of unrest, inspired partly by popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, has weakened Saleh’s 32-year grip on his impoverished nation, a neighbour of oil giant Saudi Arabia and home to an agile and ambitious regional al Qaeda wing.
The protesters, marking what they called the “Friday of no return,” gave short shrift to Saleh’s offer on Thursday of a new constitution to be voted on this year and electoral reforms.
“We don’t want initiatives, we want him to go,” said one demonstrator, Ali Abdulrahman.
Tribesman Mohammed Saleh said: “All of us tribes are here now to demand that this man leaves. We’re tired of him.”
Several of Yemen’s influential tribes have turned against Saleh, as have some Muslim clerics and ruling party lawmakers.
“It is only a matter of time before we see mass civil disobedience,” said a senior government official, who asked not to be named. “Saleh will likely declare emergency law, but I do not think he will survive.”
As Yemen’s water and oil resources dry up, it has become increasingly difficult for Saleh, 68, to fuel the patronage system that kept his tribal and political supporters loyal.
In the central province of Maareb, residents said hundreds of Yemenis demonstrated because they had not been paid for attending Saleh’s speech in Sanaa on Thursday.
The local newspaper Maareb Press said they been promised 50,000 Yemeni riyals ($233) and began shouting “the people demand the fall of the regime” when they did not get the money.
Protesters want an end to Saleh’s autocratic system, in which his relatives and allies hold key posts. They also cite frustration with rampant corruption and soaring unemployment.
Some 40 percent of Yemen’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day and a third face chronic hunger.
The U.S. ambassador, in an interview with a state-backed magazine to be published on Saturday, encouraged protesters to engage in dialogue with the government on Yemen’s future.
“Our question is always, if President Saleh leaves, then what do you do on the next day?” asked Gerald Feierstein.
The United States fears that Saleh’s overthrow might lead to a power vacuum that would be exploited by Islamist militants in the Arabian Peninsula state, from which al Qaeda has launched attacks on Western and Saudi targets.