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Large protests staged against Yemen president

More than 10,000 people took to the streets of Yemen yesterday as to demand that its pro-Western president gives up power.

Ali Abullah Saleh's three decades at the helm of the Arabian peninsula's poorest country has become the latest focus of popular anger after the flight of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia.

Mr Saleh, whose support in the fight against Islamic terrorists is considered vital by London and Washington, has resisted demands for his retirement.

Despite a pervasive police presence, up to 16,000 demonstrators moved from the University of Yemen to the centre of the capital, Sana'a.

Banners demanded the president abandon changes to the consitution that would grant Mr Saleh another ten years in power.

"If the (ruling) party doesn't respond to our demands, we will escalate this until the president falls, just like what happened in Tunisia," said Ayub Hassan, a protestor.

However the demonstrations ended quietly as the protestors devolved into small groups to chew qat, the narcotic-like local drug, in the late afternoon.

While the regime has targetted the ringleaders of the protests it has not sought to dispel gatherings with brute force. Instead it has hinted at a package of concessions to its opponents.

A reformist aide to Mr Saleh conceded that the demonstrators had a legitimate gripe. "People do have fair grievances everywhere in Yemen, but unfortunately they are being used by politicians from both sides," Jalal Yaqoub, a vice-finance minister said. "The government should listen to the people and enact substantial reforms that give the government credibility that it will do the right thing for the people, not for the political leaders. That starts by improving government administration."

Mr Saleh has ruled out the prospect of his son succeeding him in office, another key demand of the activists.