By RFE RL
Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has set the stage for what could be the biggest showdown yet between his forces and an increasingly powerful opposition.
Saleh, in an address to the nation, told protesters who are seeking his ouster that if they choose political dialogue, then he would oversee the peaceful transfer of authority by “constitutional means.” But, he said, “if blood is shed,” the protesters would assume “full responsibility.”
The remarks came ahead of a planned protest today in the capital, Sanaa, where opposition leaders have called for hundreds of thousands to take to the streets and march to the presidential palace.
Ahead of the planned demonstration, troops were reportedly blocking highways into Sanaa in an effort to stop people from entering the capital. Nevertheless, thousands of protesters are already reported to be gathering for separate rallies in the city center, shouting slogans against the president.
Today’s events come after security forces shot dead more than 40 demonstrators in Sanaa a week ago. But that bloodshed seems to have only increased defections from Saleh’s own military and among key tribal leaders to the opposition camp.
One general who defected to the opposition, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, deployed his troops this week around central Sanaa Square to protect the protesters who have camped out there for weeks.
Over the past days, there has been fierce jockeying by both sides to win over public opinion.
The opposition has rejected Saleh’s offer to step down by the end of this year as too little, too late. And Saleh urged ordinary Yemenis who want reforms to shun opposition leaders and form their own party instead.
In Syria, Unrest Escalates
Meanwhile, another showdown is likely in Syria, where unrest has escalated rapidly through the week.
Some 20,000 people on March 24 marched through the streets of the southern city of Daraa chanting antigovernment slogans. On their shoulders, mourners bore the coffins of nine people who were killed when security forces opened fire on protesters on March 23.
The main city hospital said it received the bodies of at least 37 protesters after the shooting, bringing the total number of people killed since unrest began a week ago there to at least 44.
As in Yemen, Syria’s ruler has spent much of the last 24 hours trying to both frighten and coax protesters off the streets. Hundreds of troops are now patrolling the center of Daraa, but at the same time President Bashar al-Assad has made a rare public promise to look into granting Syrians greater freedoms.
Assad ordered a 20 to 30 percent salary hike for public employees across Syria and his Baath Party, which has ruled Syria for half a century, announced it will draft laws to provide for media freedoms and look at allowing other political movements.
But as in Yemen, Syrian opposition leaders have dismissed the promises as not enough. They hope their protest will spread beyond Daraa, the focal point so far, just as the antigovernment protests which have swept the Arab since January show no signs of dying out.
written by Charles Recknagel, with agency reports