Yemen president rejects demands he step down now

Sanaa, Feb 21 (AP) Yemen''s embattled leader todayrejected demands that he step down, saying widespreaddemonstrations against his regime are unacceptable acts ofprovocation.

However, US-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, inpower for three decades, offered to begin a dialogue with theprotesters.

The proposal was quickly rebuffed as insincere by anopposition spokesman, and an influential group of Muslimclerics called for the establishment of a national unitygovernment until elections can be held.

In another attempt to defuse anger, Saleh told a newsconference that he has ordered troops not to fire at anti-government protesters, except in self defense. At least 11people have been killed since protests erupted earlier thismonth, including a youth shot dead today, medical officialssaid.

The demonstrations in Yemen, the poorest Arab nation,are part of a wave of unrest that have swept across the Arabworld in recent weeks and toppled autocratic leaders inTunisia and Egypt.

Saleh''s government was already weak before theprotests, facing a southern separatist movement anddisaffected tribesmen around the country.

Saleh is quietly cooperating with the US in efforts tobattle an al-Qaida franchise that has taken root in Yemen, buthis government exercises limited control in the tribal areasbeyond the capital. The US gives Yemen military aid andtraining.

Despite Saleh''s gestures, protesters are digging in.

Several hundred camped overnight in a square in the capital ofSanaa, near the city''s university. Many remained thisevening, saying they would stay until the regime falls.

Similar to the scenes in Tahrir Square in Cairo, theepicentre of the Egyptian uprising, protesters in Sanaapitched small tents and set up a platform equipped withloudspeakers. Protesters guarded access roads and searchedthose entering the square.

In the city of Taiz, tens of thousands of protestersrallied in the central square. "We will not leave this placeuntil the downfall of the regime," activist Ahmed Ghilan said.

A 28-year-old protester died today of wounds hesustained when a hand grenade was thrown on protesters in Taizon Friday, a hospital official said.

Thousands of protesters also marched in the city ofSaada, near the Saudi border, calling for the government''souster. The area has seen fighting between government forcesand Shiite rebels who oppose government control of their area.

In the port city of Aden, a group of youths threwstones at a security vehicle today, said a medical official ata local hospital. Shots were fired at the stone-throwers fromthe vehicle, killing one and injuring four, the official said.


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