Crowds press for Yemen president’s ouster

Blamed for blast that killed 100 at munitions plant

Protesters at Sanaa University participated in a sit-in to demand the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule.
Protesters at Sanaa University participated in a sit-in to demand the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule. (Khaled Abdullah/ Reuters)
By Ahmed al-Haj Associated Press / March 31, 2011

SANA, Yemen — Hundreds of thousands of antigovernment protesters packed the streets of cities throughout Yemen yesterday, demanding the president’s ouster and blaming him for a munitions factory blast that killed at least 100 people.

Enraged men chanted as they walked toward public squares in Sana and elsewhere, waving their national black-white-and-red flag. Many sported green bandannas wrapped around their heads emblazoned with the word “leave,’’ while others scrawled the word on their palms, waving their hands in the air.

Mass protests have been shaking Yemen for weeks, with demonstrators inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia seeking the ouster of their own autocratic ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has served for 32 years.

Yesterday’s largely peaceful demonstrations ratcheted up the pressure, spreading beyond the traditional gatherings in the capital, the port city of Aden, and the town of Taiz to include Saada, where Shi’ite rebels have fought Saleh’s forces for years, Marib, an Al Qaeda stronghold, and the southern province of Abyan, where Islamic militants have seized power in areas.

The militants, loyal to Al Qaeda, seized power of two towns, a strategic hilltop, and a munitions factory in Abyan this week. The factory exploded Monday, killing dozens of impoverished residents who were stripping the place bare.

That prompted accusations by Yemen’s opposition groups that Saleh effectively helped the militants by pulling the army back from the factory area and letting the terror network take power to stoke Western fears that Al Qaeda is poised to take advantage of any vacuum left by his departure.

“Without this organized pullout and the planned chaos by the regime, the massacre at the factory would have not happened,’’ an umbrella group of opposition organizations said in a statement.

Youssef Said, a leader in Saleh’s ruling Congress Party and a professor at Aden University, denied the allegations. “These accusations are false and are part of the opposition’s political maneuvering.’’

The party called for the president’s supporters to stage a massive demonstration tomorrow to counter those calling for him to step down.

Saleh has cooperated closely with the United States in the battle against Yemen’s branch of Al Qaeda, which has used areas of Yemen long out of state control to launch attacks, including the attempt to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into underwear.

The president has also battled regional rebellions in the north and south.

Around 100 demonstrators have been killed as security forces try to violently put down the protests, including more than 40 gunned down by snipers on March 18, said Majid al-Madji of the Yemen rights group Shaqayek.

State control in Yemen has diminished sharply this month as massive demonstrations spiraled in major cities and the government pulled police from many towns.

Antigovernment protesters in other areas pushed out police and soldiers and set up militias for self-defense.

The protesters blame Saleh for mismanagement, repression and the fatal shootings of protesters, and say they will not relent until he goes.

Still, a senior opposition member promised that if Saleh stepped down, he would be treated well.

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.
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