Tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh held rival demonstrations in the capital on Friday, in a test of support for the veteran leader's 32-year rule.
Protesters outside Sanaa University, repeating slogans which have echoed around the Arab world since the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, chanted: "The people demand the downfall of the regime."
About 4 km (2 miles) across town, loyalists shouted support for a leader they said was holding the fractured and impoverished tribal country together. "The creator of unity is in our hearts. We will not abandon him," they chanted.
Seventeen people have died in the past nine days in a sustained wave of nationwide anti-Saleh protests galvanised by the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents. Saleh has said he will not give in to "anarchy and killing".
A US ally against the Yemen-based al Qaeda wing that has launched attacks at home and abroad, the Yemeni leader is struggling to end protests flaring across the Arabian Peninsula's poorest state.
He is also trying to maintain a shaky truce with northern Shi'ite Muslim rebels and contain a secessionist insurgency in the south against northern rule.
In the city of Taiz, 200 km (125 miles) south of the capital, about 10,000 people staged an anti-government protest.
Witnesses said police were present at both demonstrations in Sanaa to prevent either group marching to confront the other.
Outside the university, Saleh's opponents held an auction to raise money for their campaign, selling a car and a watch, which fetched 600,000 riyals ($3,000).
Saleh supporters in Tahrir Square, many of whom arrived in buses, chanted "Yes to stability, no to chaos".
SECURITY STEPPED UP
Authorities stepped up security in Sanaa ahead of the rallies. An Interior Ministry statement late on Thursday ordered security forces to "raise their security vigilance and take all measures to control any terrorist elements" who might take advantage of the protests to infiltrate Sanaa.
Saleh had earlier "demanded security services offer full protection for the demonstrators" and prevent confrontations, according a statement from Yemen's Washington embassy.
Pro-Saleh loyalists wielding clubs and daggers have often sought to break up opposition protests in Sanaa and elsewhere.
Hours after the embassy statement was issued, a bomb exploded at a protest march by southern secessionists in the town of Lawdar on Thursday, killing one person and wounding two, a local official said.
A man who had set himself on fire earlier this week died of his burns at a hospital in Aden the same day, a doctor said. The man's relatives said he had acted in protest against the killings of demonstrators in the southern port city.
State news agency Saba said Saleh has also assigned a committee headed by Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Megawar to open a dialogue with protesters to hear their demands.
Nine members of parliament resigned from Saleh's ruling party on Wednesday in protest against what they said was government violence against protesters, but the president still has the support of around 80 per cent of parliamentarians.
RALLIES IN TUNISIA
In Tunisia, tens of thousands rallied on Friday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi's transitional government set up after last month's ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Demonstrators chanted "Ghannouchi leave" and "Shame on this government" as army helicopters circled above the crowd massed in the Kasbah government quarter, where police estimated that the number of people topped 100,000.
It was the biggest of several rallies against the transitional authority since the fall of long-time ruler Ben Ali on January 14 after weeks of demonstrations, protesters and Red Crescent workers estimated.
Tunisians "are living in a political vacuum," a law student who gave his name only as Ramzi told AFP. "We demand the firing of the whole government and of Ghannouchi," he said.
Ghannouchi's caretaker government, tasked with leading Tunisia to elections due in about five months, has faced regular protests demanding it root out vestiges of the old regime.
These include Ghannouchi, who was prime minister under Ben Ali for over a decade since 1999, and several ministers.
Ghannouchi left his offices in the Kasbah complex late January after the first protests against him there.
Friday's rally was swelling, an AFP reporter said, and a Red Crescent worker said more than 30 people had fainted because of the huge number of people, who included youths draped in the Tunisian flag.
The fall of Ben Ali after 23 years in power sparked similar uprisings in the Arab world, including one that led to the downfall of long-time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on February 11 and another under way in Libya.
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