Yemen’s opposition held mass protests Monday, escalating demands for the immediate departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after the ailing leader said his future should be determined at the ballot box.
Tens of thousands of protesters marched in two demonstrations, one for men and another for women, from Change Square, epicentre of anti-regime protests which have rocked Yemen since late January.
Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for the parliamentary Common Forum of opposition parties, said Saleh clearly had no intention of quitting.
“Saleh has shown in his address that he is still clinging to power, and that he refuses the Gulf initiative that provides for a political transfer,” Qahtan said.
“After the speech of the president, there is no way to reach a political solution, and the revolution will intensify,” he added.
Saleh, who unexpectedly returned Friday to Yemen after months in Saudi Arabia for treatment from bomb blast wounds, late on Sunday challenged the opposition to head to early elections.
“You who are running after power, let us head together toward the ballot boxes. We are against coups,” he said in a speech marking the 49th anniversary of the September 26, 1962 revolution that saw Yemen proclaimed a republic.
“We have repeatedly called for power transfer through the ballot box… let us head together to dialogue and peaceful rotation over power through the ballot box and early presidential elections as the Gulf initiative stipulates,” he said.
In Taez, Yemen’s second largest city, hundreds of thousands marched from Jamal Street to the protest encampment at Freedom Square.
And in the southern port of Aden, thousands of protesters demanded the fall of the regime and that “those behind the crimes” in Sanaa be prosecuted.
The 69-year-old Saleh has repeatedly refused to sign a power transfer deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) under which he would hand power to Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi in return for immunity from prosecution.
But he said on Sunday he had authorised Hadi to sign the deal on his behalf.
“We are committed to implementing the Gulf initiative as it is, and to signing it by Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, whom we have authorised in a presidential decree,” he said.
At Change Square, youth protesters rejected Saleh’s speech.
“The youth will not accept,” said Walid al-Amari, a leading member of the youth protest committee, addressing demonstrators at the square during the night.
“They will not give up until they achieve all the goals of the revolution,” he added, of demands that Saleh quit immediately.
Saleh’s speech came hours after his security forces opened fire when tens of thousands of people marched in Sanaa demanding his trial for crimes committed during his decades-long rule.
Eighteen people were wounded, including one who is now in a coma, medics said.
The Gulf-sponsored deal was meant to be finalised last week but efforts by international and regional mediators were torpedoed by intense fighting between security forces backed by Saleh loyalists on the one side and defected army units and dissident tribesmen on the other.
The violence in Sanaa, according to figures obtained from medics, the opposition and tribal sources left 173 people dead in one week.
Meanwhile, a general from the elite Republican Guard was killed and 30 troops were taken hostage when tribesmen opposed to Saleh attacked their base in Nihm overnight, the defence ministry and tribal sources said.
The ministry in a statement blamed several opposition leaders, including Yemen’s most influential tribal chief and a powerful dissident general, for the attack.
Nihm some 60 kilometres (42 miles) north of Sanaa is one of several towns that collectively make up the strategic northern gateway into Sanaa and is the site of at least five Republican Guard bases.
The elite unit has so far prevented dissident General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who now controls part of the capital, from calling in reinforcements from the northern provinces where he has a strong following.
Saleh has also come under increasing pressure from the GCC, the United Nations and the United States to relinquish power.
On Sunday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged Yemenis to implement the Gulf Initiative.
“We see that the Gulf Initiative is still the exit to resolve the Yemeni crisis and prevent the situation (there) from getting worse,” he said.