SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A powerful Yemeni tribal leader warned Monday against attacks on anti-government protesters as hundreds of thousands rallied in the capital Sanaa and several other cities calling for regime change.
Yemen has been gripped by a six-month political crisis, with near daily street protests demanding longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.
Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, who in March joined the uprising against Saleh, warned the army not to attack thousands of students camped out close to Sanaa University. A youth group said earlier that the government is preparing to storm the camp.
Meanwhile, a small group of Saleh's supporters, including women and children who live close to the students' camp, demonstrated in front of the presidential palace demanding the camp be emptied out. They carried banners claiming their daily lives have been disrupted by the camp's proximity.
One banner read: "The people want the tents to be moved" — a play on words on the opposition's popular slogan, "The people want the president to leave."
Saleh has clung to power, refusing to cave in to demands for his ouster although he remains hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, recovering from wounds sustained in a June 3 attack on his presidential compound in Sanaa. He has left his sons, relatives, close associates and loyalists in charge back home.
The youth group behind the university protest said in a statement Monday that the government is inciting families who live close to the square where the students are camped out to demonstrate against them. Since Yemen's uprising erupted in February, the students have dubbed the location "Change Square."
"Security and military commanders are planning to storm Change Square with the help of thugs who will clash with the protesters and cause chaos, giving a pretext for the storming of the camp," the students said.
Al-Ahamar warned that such an attack, allegedly planned by the "remnants of the ruling family," will escalate the country's dangerous situation.
Al-Ahmar heads the Hashid, Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation. Early on in the uprising, he tried to mediate between the government and protesters but later turned his back on Saleh after security forces on March 18 opened fire on unarmed marchers in Sanaa, killing dozens. The bloody day prompted an avalanche of defections among Saleh's allies.
Also Monday, anti-government demonstrators took to the streets in 17 provinces across Yemen, including in the capital Sanaa and the cities of Aden, Taiz, Ibb, Bayda, Damar, Hodeida and Saada.
The demonstrators denounced attacks by Republican Guard units led by Saleh's son Ahmed, which have violently descended on past protests. They chanted slogans against Ahmed saying, "the world should know that Ahmed is a war criminal."
Yemen's uprising, inspired by revolts across the Mideast, is just one of the country's several crises. The impoverished nation in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula is home to one of the most active al-Qaida branches and there are concerns the militants have been taking advantage of the political unrest to expand their haven in the country and plot attacks against the West.
In the past weeks, al-Qaida-linked militants have seized control of two cities in the southern Abyan province and have held on to them despite numerous airstrikes and a ground offensive by government forces.