SANAA: More than a thousand protesters clashed with government loyalists in Yemen on Thursday on the seventh straight day of demonstrations demanding the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule.
Clashes broke out in the capital Sanaa after groups of government loyalists armed with daggers and batons confronted about 1,500 protesters, prompting the police to fire warning shots in the air, witnesses said.
“The people want the fall of the president, the people want the fall of the regime,” chanted the protesters. Dozens were wounded and carried away from the scene.
Witnesses said police appeared to have lost control of the crowds and withdrew from the streets as the rival camps hurled rocks at each other. A police source told Reuters that riot police were being sent in.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a US ally against a resurgent al Qaeda wing that has launched attacks on foreign and regional targets in one of the Arab world's poorest countries.
A third of the population in Yemen faces chronic hunger and 40 per cent live on less than $2 a day. The country is struggling to cement a truce with north Shi'ite rebels in the north and stifle an increasingly violent southern separatist movement.
Analysts say any uprising in Yemen, neighbour to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, is unlikely to see sudden government collapse. But widespread unrest could unfold slowly and lead to more bloodshed in a country where one in two people own a gun.
Saleh may prove harder to topple than Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said Khaled Fattah, a Yemen scholar at Scotland's St. Andrews University, contrasting the centralisation of state power in Egypt with the fragmented nature of authority in Yemen.
“The continuity of protests, however, may put pressure on Saleh's government to offer more political concessions to the southern (secessionist) movement. Such concessions might lead to the adoption of a federal system,” Fattah said.
Trying to calm three weeks of protests, Saleh has made concessions such as a promise to step down when his term ends in 2013 and a vow not to let his son inherit power.
Since the opposition coalition accepted Saleh's offer of national dialogue a week ago, spontaneous anti-Saleh protests have broken out. They are smaller than the opposition-organised rallies that which at their peak drew tens of thousands.
LEADING CLERIC SUPPORTS SALEH
The latest demonstrations, organised by text messaging and social networks rather than any political party, have been countered by pro-government crowds ready to use violence.
One protester was killed in the southern port city of Aden on Wednesday, when police fired shots to disperse a demonstration, the first confirmed death since the unrest began.
Saleh has been touring provinces trying to rally support and sent his vice president to Aden on Thursday to head a committee to investigate the violence used in protests the day before.
In Aden, police fired in the air but failed to break up hundreds of people at a sit-in around Aden's city hall on Thursday to protest police treatment of demonstrators.
Muslim preachers loyal to Saleh have also stepped into the political fray in a country where religious and tribal allegiances are often stronger than political ones.
Abdel Majid al-Zindani, a religious leader in Sanaa, called on Thursday for the formation of a unity government.
“Religious thinkers have determined, after studying the results of the situation in Tunisia and Egypt, that Yemen should establish a unity government to give the people the right to decide who governs,” he told reporters.
Zindani said his proposal did not include, however, a change in president and said Yemenis should wait for 2013 elections.
In Sanaa, Saleh loyalists have occupied the capital's main Tahrir Square and slept there in tents for the past week to deny anti-government protesters access to a symbolic public space similar to the square in Cairo that bears the same name.
In Taiz, south of Sanaa, anti-government protesters took over the main square days ago, with their numbers swelling to a few thousand in the evening and thinning out at dawn.