By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 1:50 AM
SANAA, YEMEN - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh rejected on Monday demands to resign immediately, declaring that protesters seeking an end to his rule must do so through elections rather than through violence and chaos.
At the same time, he repeated his offer to hold a dialogue over power-sharing with Yemen's main opposition parties. The parties have rejected his proposal, saying they can't negotiate with a government whose loyalists and security forces have attacked pro-reform demonstrators with "bullets and sticks and thuggery."
On Monday, Saleh also accused his opponents of using force and of not listening to the majority of Yemenis who, he said, want peace and stability.
"Yes to reforms," Saleh said at a news conference in the capital, Sanaa. "No to coups and seizing power through anarchy and killing.
"If they want power, they must reach it through the ballot boxes," he added. "You are calling for the regime to go - then come and get rid of it through the ballot boxes, not through violence."
Saleh is facing mounting pressure to prevent attacks against pro-reform demonstrators, not only from the streets but also from close allies such as the United States, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars in military and developmental aid.
Saleh said Monday that he would order security forces not to fire at anti-government protesters unless it is in self-defense; he told thousands of supporters Sunday that he condemned the violence committed by pro-government gangs, saying that they did not belong to his ruling party.
So far, at least 12 people have been killed nationwide, most of them in the restive southern city of Aden. On Monday, security forces fatally shot a teenager there and wounded four others when the youths threw stones at a patrol, Reuters reported.
In an effort to defuse tensions, Saleh has promised to step down from office in 2013 and not to anoint his son as his heir apparent. But that has not stemmed the growing tide of protesters who have taken to the streets in several cities to demand his ouster. Last week, clashes that erupted among rival groups of rock-throwing demonstrators underscored Yemen's potential to spiral into chaos.
The past two days were relatively calm in the capital. On Monday, several thousand protesters staged a sit-in in front of Sanaa University, the focal point of demonstrations in the capital. The protesters included lawmakers from opposition parties, suggesting that some favored regime change rather than political reforms.
A key reason why Yemen's protests have been small - although Yemenis have the same economic and political grievances as Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans - is that the opposition has been divided over its goals. While the protesters, mostly young people and activists, want Saleh to step down, his political opponents are seeking exact concessions but not his ouster.
Outside the university, the mood was festive, with people singing and chanting over loudspeakers, reminiscent of the gatherings in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Banners read, "The people want to overthrow the regime."
"Get out Saleh," read another placard written in 12 languages.