x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Saleh tells Yemen protesters he will only go 'through ballot box defeat'

'We have offered reforms based on the opposition request but their demands have increased their demands and some of which are illegal,' Ali Abdullah Saleh says.

SANAA// Amid increasing street protests across the country demanding his departure, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, attacked the demands of demonstrators yesterday and said he would quit only through a ballot box defeat.

"We have offered reforms based on the opposition request but their demands have increased their demands and some of which are illegal. If they want me to quit, I will only leave through the ballot box," Mr Saleh told reporters at a news conference yesterday in Sanaa.

Mr Saleh who has been in power for 32 years, said protests in Yemen are not new and that they are a "sign of democracy and multiparty system".

He called on the opposition for dialogue but he said he would not accept that the US or European embassies supervise the talks as a guarantee of success. He said protesters cannot achieve their goals through "anarchy and killing".

"Our reference is the Yemeni people only," he said.

Violence has marked several days of anti-Saleh street protests. One protester was killed and four others wounded yesterday in the port city of Aden. According to local sources and eyewitnesses, police opened fire at young protesters who were hurling stones at their military patrol in the city's Khormaksar district.

Yesterday's incident raises the death toll of violent protests to 12 in four days, though the interior ministry said on its website yesterday that only four people were killed. Mr Saleh said yesterday that security forces have been told to open fire only in cases of self-defence.

During the past days, pro-democracy protesters, mainly in Sanaa, were attacked by the government supporters armed with batons, daggers and pistols. Dozens of protesters were reportedly wounded in such attacks.

The European Union said it "strongly condemns the use of violence against peaceful protesters and calls for the Yemeni authorities to immediately halt attacks by security forces and armed pro-government groups on peaceful protesters and journalists and avoid any escalation", the EU said in a statement issued late on Sunday.

Mr Saleh said on February 2 that he would not seek to extend his term when it expires in 2013 and that his son wouldn't succeed him as president. On Sunday, he offered to open talks with the opposition and said the government is willing to listen to "legitimate" demands, but the opposition rejected the call and said it will not hold talks as long as security forces are attacking protesters.

Thousands of Yemenis went to the streets yesterday after the Joint Meeting Parties, an opposition coalition of six parties, called on Sunday for its supporters to join the young protesters who have been demonstrating in some cities for the last 12 days, demanding the ouster of Mr Saleh.

In Sanaa, thousands gathered at what they now call "Change Square" in front of Sanaa University campus and were joined by opposition MPs. Hundreds set up their tents and spent their night at the site.

After days of harassment by the government supporters, the protest yesterday went smoothly without any reported clashes. The protesters set up their own checkpoints and started searching people coming into the location where loud speakers broadcasting national songs and anti-government slogans were heard from a distance. Large posters demanding that Mr Saleh leave were densely posted at the site. The protesters chanted: "The people want to overthrow the regime. Hey Ali,leave, leave, without your departure, there is no solution."

"We will not leave this site till the president and his corrupt regime go. The president speaks about the ballot box while we know that the box is dirtier than the rubbish bin and election is always rigged," said Raid Ali Salem, a 27-year protester as he wrapped his head with a red piece of cloth on which the word "leave" has been written.

The protesters seemed in high spirits. On their shoulders, dozens of people carried a man, with a red card in his hand, as the protesters shouted: "Red card to Ali."

Anti-regime protests also spread to the north of the country, with tens of thousands of Shiite Houthi rebels demonstrating yesterday in Saada to demand the departure of Mr Saleh. The call for demonstrations in the stronghold of the Zaidi Shiite rebels, who have been fighting a sporadic war against the government, was made by Abdulmalik al Houthi, the group leader, and the opposition. Saada is the stronghold of the rebels, who from 2004 fought six wars with Mr Saleh's government before signing a peace treaty in 2010.

Thousands also protested in Taiz, Hodiedah and Lahj provinces.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni clerics association banned yesterday the use of force on peaceful protests and called for an immediate national dialogue and a unity government. The clerics, led by Sheikh Abdulmajeed al Zindani, a prominent religious hardliner accused by the US of financing terrorism, said in a statement that "any act of beating or killing of protestors is an deliberate crime" called for a ban on arbitrary arrest and torture. They also said that pro-government rallies should be held away from protest demonstrations to avoid the deadly clashes of recent days.

malqadhi@thenational.ae