Yemen opposition forces deployed armored vehicles across streets freshly lined with sandbags in the capital Sana'a as tens of thousands gathered for prayers and protests both for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s three-decade rule.
General Ali Mohsen, a top military commander who defected to the opposition in March, sent troops and armored vehicles to guard “Change Square,” where protesters have camped for months.
At the “Friday of Patience” rally, a cleric urged calm: “We will remain steadfast and preserve the peacefulness of our revolution until this regime falls.”
Protesters have grown increasingly frustrated that their mass movement has yet to shake loose the 69-year old president’s grip on power, even when he was forced to go to Riyadh for medical treatment after June bomb attack on his palace.
He has vowed to return to oversee a national dialogue and elections but the opposition accuses him of stalling tactics.
A second cleric, speaking to Mr. Saleh’s supporters, said the government should have dealt more harshly with the opposition.
“Now they (the opposition) are sending down tanks and troops, they’ve abandoned their loyalty to the president and are dividing the streets,” he said. “The president has made a mistake by indulging them.”
On Thursday activists said security forces opened fire on protesters in Taez, 200 km (120 miles) south of Sanaa, provoking an ambush by opposition gunmen on Yemeni forces during which dozens were hurt and at least one soldier was killed.
Fighting also erupted between government troops and pro-opposition tribesmen on Thursday in the town of Arhab, 40 km north of the capital, where the government launched an air strike after gunmen tried to seize its strategic Soma base.
The government said pro-opposition fighters were trying to take its base to lay the ground for capturing Sanaa’s international airport. Tribesmen in Arhab denied the charges.
Impoverished Yemen has been hit with sporadic violence as six months of daily mass protests drag on.
Many fear clashes could quickly escalate in a country where half the population’s 23 million own a gun and that Yemen could become a failed state on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, home to the world’s biggest oil reserves.