Yemen leader says protests aimed at splitting nation

"There is a conspiracy against Yemen's unity," Saleh says


Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has charged that an escalating protest movement against his three-decade rule is a ploy to split the nation after deadly clashes in the formerly independent south.

"There is a conspiracy against Yemen's unity and territorial integrity and we, in the armed forces, have served to preserve the republican regime with every drop of blood we have," Saleh was quoted as saying by the state-run Saba news agency in a report on Sunday.

"Our nation has been passing through difficult times for four years," he added.

"We are trying in every way possible to deal with and overcome these difficulties democratically, through dialogue with all political leaders, but in vain."

Despite massive protests demanding he step down, Saleh has repeatedly refused to resign.

Saleh, a U.S. ally against a Yemen-based al-Qaeda wing that has launched attacks at home and abroad, is struggling to end protests flaring in the Arabian Peninsula's poorest state.

Opposition to Saleh, who was previously confronting an on-off Shiite Muslim revolt in the north and a secessionist insurgency in the south, has now spread across the country, galvanized by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

A Friday demonstration, dubbed "the beginning of the end" of his regime which swept to power in 1978, saw 100,000 Yemenis turn out across the country, organizers said.

Protests have been strongest in the south, which united with the Saleh-ruled north only in 1990.

According to an AFP tally based on reports by medics and witnesses, at least 16 people have been killed in almost daily clashes in the south since February 16.

The south attempted to secede in 1994, sparking a short-lived civil war that ended with the region being overrun by northern troops.
Saleh has promised to step down when his term ends in 2013 and not hand power to his son, though he has backed out of similar pledges in the past.

Nine members of parliament resigned from Saleh's ruling party on Wednesday in protest against what they said was government violence against protesters, but the president still has the support of around 80 percent of parliamentarians.