Yemen's president refuses to quit

Monday 21 February 2011 17:06 GMT

Yemen's embattled leader today rejected demands to step down, saying widespread demonstrations against his regime were unacceptable.

However, US-backed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for three decades, offered to begin talks with the protesters. The proposal was quickly rebuffed as insincere.

In another attempt to defuse anger, president Saleh told a news conference he had ordered troops not to fire at anti-government protesters, except in self defence.

At least 11 people have been killed since protests erupted earlier this month, including a youth shot dead today.

Mr Saleh's government was already weak before the protests, facing a southern separatist movement and disaffected tribesmen around the country. He is quietly co-operating with the US in efforts to battle an al-Qaida branch in Yemen, but his government exercises limited control in the tribal areas beyond the capital. The US gives Yemen military aid and training.

Despite Mr Saleh's gestures, protesters were digging in. Several hundred camped overnight in a square in the capital of Sanaa, near the city's university.

Similar to the scenes in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the centre of the Egyptian uprising, protesters in Sanaa pitched small tents and set up a platform equipped with loudspeakers. Protesters guarded access roads and searched those entering the square.

In the city of Taiz, tens of thousands of protesters rallied in the central square.

In the port city of Aden, youths threw stones at a security vehicle which opened fire on them killing one and injuring four.

Mr Saleh claimed today that government opponents were a small minority and that those who want to see him leave should compete in elections. The next scheduled vote is in 2013.

He described the demonstrations as an unacceptable provocation, rejecting what he suggested were attempts at foreign interference. "The arbiter is the (Yemeni) people and not the US embassy, the United States or the EU," he said.

Mohammed al-Sabri, a spokesman for a coalition of opposition groups, rejected his offer of talks. "The call is merely an attempt to win time and we have been in this vicious circle for years," he said.

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