SANAA, Yemen – Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis packed a square in the capital and marched in villages and cities across the nation on Friday in what appeared to be the largest demonstrations in more than a month of demands the country’s longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.
Many mosques in the capital shut down – a move unprecedented for Friday, the Muslim day of prayer – as worshippers and clerics streamed to the square outside Sanaa University.
Protesters filled the plaza and spilled out along three adjoining streets. Previous demonstrations have taken up the square and at most two of the streets that feed into it.
The demonstrators set up tents and hung up posters of young men who were fatally shot by government forces during previous protests.
In a parallel demonstration, tens of thousands of government supporters rallied to al-Sabaeen Square outside the presidential palace, where Saleh made a brief speech, telling them, “With my blood and soul, I redeem you,” a common chant in the Arab world.
Saleh has ruled Yemen for 32 years. He warns that if he is ousted, Yemen will descend into chaos, boosting the al-Qaida presence already in the country.
On Friday evening, two local newspaper reporters and a television cameraman were detained by security forces, according to Gamal Anaam, member of the Yemeni journalists’ union. A security official declined to comment.
Security forces also seized a close aide to Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a top military commander and longtime confidant of the president who joined the opposition. The aide, Abdul-Ghani al-Shimiri, who is al-Ahmar’s political and media assistant, was detained outside his Sanaa home Friday and is being held by the National Security agency, according to a statement by al-Ahmar’s office.
Al-Ahmar’s was the most significant in a wave of defections from Saleh’s regime by military commanders, ruling party members and others, swelling the ranks of the opposition and leaving him isolated. Al-Ahmar, commander of the powerful 1st Armored Division, deployed his troops at the central square, where demonstrators gather.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was concerned about the situation in Yemen but insisted counterterrorism cooperation was continuing between the two countries.