Sanaa: Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis seeking their President’s ouster found a new way to get their message across on Friday, releasing balloons that drifted over the presidential palace with the message “Leave, Ali” painted on them.
The tens of thousands of colourful balloons were blown across the capital and over top of the palace, where a smaller rally of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s supporters listened to the embattled leader deliver a message of his own denouncing his opponents as terrorists, looters and killers.
Saleh has refused to put an end to his 32 years in power despite tremendous pressure from three months of street demonstrations and from neighbouring Arab nations fearful that Yemen’s growing instability could spill into their wealthy oil-producing lands.
What began as a sit-in on a university campus in the capital, Sanaa, has grown into demonstrations by hundreds of thousands across the country. Like the other Arab leaders forced from power or under threat in the Arab world’s uprisings, Saleh has used a mix of concessions and brutal force to try to quell the outpouring.
Despite the killings of more than 140 protesters, the crowds continue to gather.
Rival rallies by Saleh’s supporters and opponents have become a fixture in the capital on Fridays, although the anti-Saleh crowds far outnumber those of his backers.
This Friday, the anti-Saleh rally was dubbed a “Day of Gratitude to the South” to honor southerners who in 2007 renewed their own protests against what they say is government neglect of their once-independent region.
Those protests swelled into a full-scale secessionist movement, one of several key security challenges testing Saleh’s rule even before the nationwide anti-government protests broke out in early February.
Among the other threats are the deadly al Qaeda offshoot that took refuge in the country in recent years and an on-and-off armed rebellion in the north. Yemen is also the Arab world’s poorest nation and is wracked by corruption and unemployment.
Protesters in the capital today again occupied a five-mile (eight-kilometer) section of a major western boulevard and released balloons in the red, black and white colours of the flag with the anti-Saleh protest cry of “Leave, Ali” written on them.
Demonstrators then turned south, where tens of thousands of Saleh supporters were rallying outside the presidential palace and chanted for him to go.
“The people want the end of the regime,” they shouted, using the slogan first heard in Tunisia and later around the Arab world. Agencies