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Yemeni president offers plan to amend constitution

By Portia Walker
Friday, March 11, 2011; 12:33 AM

SANAA, YEMEN - Embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced plans Thursday for a new constitution that would guarantee the independence of Yemen's parliament and judiciary. But the concession was immediately rejected by the opposition movement, which appears determined to end Saleh's nearly 33-year rule.

Speaking to more than 40,000 supporters at a stadium in the capital, Sanaa, Saleh said the initiative would transfer some powers from the executive branch to a parliamentary system and grant greater financial and administrative authority to local governing bodies. The proposal, he said, would be submitted for public approval by the end of the year.

The president's offer was turned down by the opposition, which vowed to continue daily demonstrations against the government.

"This initiative is too late. The demands on the street go beyond that and are bigger than that," said Mohammed Qahtan, an opposition spokesman.

Saleh, a key ally in U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has made several concessions to the protesters, including a pledge to step down when his term ends in 2013. The protesters, however, are demanding his immediate ouster.

"He has given the opposition everything they have been calling for," said political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani. "The disagreement now is over the timeline."

Saleh's speech Thursday was broadcast live on Yemeni television and included scenes of well-choreographed support. The 64-year-old president was joined by influential allies, including government ministers, tribal leaders and leading clerics, who sat behind him as he addressed the flag-waving crowds.

The men in the stadium chanted, "The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh," periodically taking to their feet to declare their support for their longtime ruler. Women sat in a separate reserved section, shading themselves from the blazing sun with newspaper pages.

The demonstrations and sit-ins by anti- and pro-government crowds have taken place daily in cities across Yemen for the past four weeks. In his speech, Saleh also emphasized that security forces would provide protection for all demonstrators, regardless of their political allegiance.

One person was killed and scores of others were injured when security forces opened fire on demonstrators in the capital Tuesday. International human rights groups say that as many as 30 people have been killed in the unrest.

Walker is a special correspondent.

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