By Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 8:37 PM
SANAA, YEMEN - Hundreds of anti-government protesters, inspired by the mass uprising in Egypt, clashed with police blocking them from marching to Yemen's presidential palace in Sanaa on Sunday, witnesses said.
The clashes occurred while President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the main opposition group were preparing for talks that the government hoped would help avert an Egypt-style revolt in the Arabian Peninsula state, a vital U.S. ally against al-Qaeda.
Saleh postponed a visit to the United States planned for later this month "due to the current circumstances in the region," the state news agency Saba said, without elaborating.
About 1,000 people attended the demonstration, shouting "the Yemeni people want the fall of the regime" and "a Yemeni revolution after the Egyptian revolution," before dozens broke off to march to the palace.
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign Friday after 30 years in power under pressure from mass popular protests, one month after Tunisia's longtime President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was similarly ousted.
In the harshest response yet to a wave of protests in the capital, police prevented the smaller group from reaching the palace, hitting them with batons, while protesters threw rocks at the police, witnesses said. Four people were injured.
Anti-government protests have gained momentum in Yemen in recent weeks and prompted Saleh to offer significant concessions to calm tensions, including a pledge to step down in 2013.
Many of the Sanaa protests, including a "Day of Rage" on Feb. 3 attended by tens of thousands of opposition and pro-government demonstrators, ended peacefully.
Although pro- and anti-government protesters have clashed in recent days, police have generally stayed out of the fray in Sanaa. They have clamped down more firmly outside the capital.
Opposition officials said 10 protesters were briefly detained in Sanaa on Sunday and 120 more were taken into custody overnight in Taiz after protests Saturday.
Instability in Yemen would present serious political and security risks for Gulf states. The United States relies heavily on Saleh to help combat al-Qaeda's Yemen-based arm, which also carries out attacks in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
In the south, where the government faces al-Qaeda militants and rising secessionist sentiment, about 1,500 anti-government protesters marched in Aden and hundreds demonstrated in two of the port city's suburbs. Police used batons to disperse the marchers, arresting about eight people, residents said.
A court in the south sentenced six men to death for kidnappings and armed attacks on police, Saba said.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch criticized Yemen for allowing government supporters to assault, intimidate and sometimes clash with protesters calling on Saleh to quit.
"The Yemeni authorities have a duty to permit and protect peaceful demonstrations," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead, the security forces and armed thugs appear to be working together."
There was no immediate response from Yemeni officials.
Saleh, a shrewd political survivor, has backed out of previous promises to step aside. Analysts say his concessions could be a genuine way to exit gracefully but that he may hope to wait out regional unrest and reassert his dominance another day.