SANAA, Yemen – Tens of thousands of protesters Thursday staged unprecedented demonstrations against Yemen’s autocratic president, a key U.S. ally in battling Islamic militants, as unrest inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia spread further in the Arab world.
The West is particularly concerned about instability in Yemen, home of the terrorist network al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. counterterrorism officials are worried that Yemeni security forces will be more focused on protecting the government, allowing al-Qaida to take advantage of any diminished scrutiny.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office for more than three decades, announced Wednesday he would not seek re-election in 2013 and would not seek to pass power to his son. Saleh’s pledge was seen as an attempt to defuse growing calls for his ouster.
Opposition groups said they are suspicious of Saleh’s offer, however, and want concrete proposals for change.
On Thursday, they led tens of thousands in protests in seven towns and cities across Yemen, with chants of “Down, down, down with the regime!” and banners calling on the president to resign now.
In the capital of Sanaa, several thousand government supporters staged a counterdemonstration, carrying banners warning that the opposition is trying to destabilize Yemen. Military helicopters hovered in some areas, and there was a heavy security presence around the Interior Ministry and the Central Bank.
The marches were largely peaceful, although witnesses said police opened fire in one provincial town, critically wounding a protester. In the capital, scuffles and stone-throwing briefly erupted between government supporters and opposition marchers, but police stepped in and there were no reports of injuries.
The White House said President Barack Obama called Saleh and urged him to follow through on his pledge to reform his government, and asked that Yemeni security forces refrain from violence against protesters.