SANAA // On the day that the largest anti-government protests yet swept the country, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, blamed the US and Israel for stirring up trouble in his country and the Arab world.
"There is an operations room in Tel Aviv that is controlled by the White House," Mr Saleh, who has worked with the US in the fight against terrorism, said yesterday in a speech at Sanaa University.
"Every day we hear a statement [from US President Barack Obama] … We want to know why Barack Obama is meddling in the affairs of the Arab countries," he said. "Is he the president of the United States of America or a president of the Arab states?"
Mr Saleh also accused the US and European Union ambassadors to his country of orchestrating the protests with opposition leaders, while telling government officials to "allow these people to demonstrate in the streets".
The president later fired the governors of five provinces where the demonstrations have been intense - Abyan, Hodiedah, Hadramaut, Aden and Lahj - without giving any reason. However, local media reported that the governor of Hodiedah, Ahmed al Jabali, resigned after refusing to organise counter-rallies in favour of the government.
Just outside the university, in Yemen's capital, tens of thousands flooded Change Square to demand that the president end his 32-year rule. The crowd included thousands of tribesmen from the surrounding areas, who managed to reach the site despite the security ban. Organisers said that several thousand more people were stopped by the security forces, which were deployed heavily around the cities.
Sheikh Abdulmajeed al Zindani, a religious leader and head of the Yemen Clerics Association, which is accused by the US of funding terrorism activities, joined the protest in Sanaa, leading noon prayers and warning the government not to use force against demonstrators.
"We hail the peaceful revolution of the youths and their legitimate demands and rights," he said.
He said that peaceful protests are a "religious duty and a form of jihad" and that "attacking peaceful protesters is a deliberate crime". Sheikh al Zindani has been leading a committee of clerics to broker talks between the government and the opposition.
The rallies, which took place in 12 of the country's provinces, were called by the Joint Meeting Parties, an coalition of opposition parties, to be a "day of anger" to denounce the clampdown on protests in the port city of Aden. About 20 people have been killed and dozens injured there since February 16.
Many of the opposition party leaders joined the protests for the first time, drawing hundreds of thousands into the streets, organisers said.
Yaseen Said Noman, secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which ruled south Yemen before it merged with the north in 1990, also joined the rally. The Socialist party is the largest opposition party in the south.
"I have come here from Amran to demand the ousting of the regime. We are hungry and we are suffering from corruption and price hikes," said Ahmed Mahyoub, 20, who was taking part in the Sanaa rally, a traditional Yemeni dagger hanging from his waist.
Ahmed Hashim Saleh, a military officer, joined the anti-government protest and said thousands of other military staff members would join the "youth revolution".
In Taiz, about 260km south of Sanaa, about 2,000 people took part in the rally, according to Bushra al Maktari, a protest leader.
In an effort to quell weeks of continued unrest in several major cities in the country, Mr Saleh called on Monday for the opposition to join a national unity government and enter dialogue.
The JMP rejected the offer and said it was too late, a significant change in the group's strategy, which had focused on extracting concessions and reforms.