Thousands rallied in the Yemeni capital on Friday to back a single-candidate presidential election planned for later this month that has sparked protests in the south, an AFP correspondent reported.
The demonstrators, who gathered in Sanaa’s Change Square — epicentre of a year of protests against veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh — chanted slogans in favour of the poll in which Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi will be the sole candidate.
“February 21 is the day on which Yemen will be reborn,” read one slogan printed on a large picture of Hadi brandished by demonstrators.
“We have all agreed that Hadi will rule for our country’s independence,” they chanted.
“Hadi, take the key, the slaughterer’s rule has ended!” they shouted, referring to the hundreds of people killed in clashes with the security forces since nationwide protests erupted in January last year.
The election is the one of the centrepieces of a Gulf-brokered deal Saleh signed in November with the parliamentary opposition, under which he is to hand power to Hadi after the vote in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution.
Unlike the poll, the immunity pledge remains deeply controversial with the Change Square protesters.
“Our demand will not change, we will not accept anything but a trial,” they chanted.
Hadi himself hails from the formerly independent south of Yemen, but the single-candidate election has proved controversial in the restive region.
On Thursday, security forces shot dead two people protesting against the vote in the southern town of Daleh, witnesses said.
Activists of the Southern Movement say the election fails to meet their aspirations for autonomy or renewed independence for the region.
Some factions of the movement have been campaigning for a boycott. Its hardline pro-independence wing, led by former southern leader Ali Salem al-Baidh, has called on supporters to disrupt the poll.
The south was independent from the end of British colonial rule in 1967 until union with the north in 1990.
It broke away again in 1994, sparking a brief civil war that ended with the region being overrun by northern troops.
Southerners have since complained of discrimination by the Sanaa government in the allocation of resources, and there have been repeated protests in favour of regional self-rule.
Protesters in Sanaa on Friday also pledged support for the uprising in Syria, where activists say regime forces have killed more than 6,000 people since mid-March.
“From (Yemen’s southern city of) Aden to Sanaa we will all sacrifice for Daraa,” they chanted, referring to Syria’s southern city which was the cradle of the protest movement.
The protesters hanged a dummy representing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The gathering took place after the weekly Muslim Friday prayers in which the preacher urged the Yemeni government to expel the Syrian ambassador.
“We call on the national unity government to expel the Syrian ambassador from Sanaa just as other countries have done,” Saleh Bateys said. “This is the least we can do for the Syrian people.”
Yemen’s six Gulf neighbours have decided to expel Syria’s envoys and withdraw their own from Damascus over the “mass slaughter” of civilians in Syria, they said in a joint statement on Tuesday.
Tunisia has also said it would expel the Syrian ambassador, and Libya on Thursday ordered Syrian diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours.
Several Western states have recalled their ambassadors from Damascus and the United States has closed its embassy there altogether.