SANAA (Reuters) – Thousands of Yemeni women protested in Sanaa and other cities on Saturday, enraged by President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s remarks it was against Islam for women to join men in the demonstrations aimed at toppling him. The women, many clad in black Islamic dress with full face veils, said their role in protests was religiously sound and called on the president to step down in line with nearly three months of demonstrations demanding his ouster. “It seems that President Saleh failed in all his efforts to employ tribes and security to strike at those seeking his exit, and so he resorted to using religion, especially after he saw that thousands of women were taking part in protests,” said Samia al-Aghbari, a leader in the protest movement. Saleh, who has warned of civil war and the break-up of Yemen if he is forced out before organizing an orderly transition, urged the opposition on Friday to reconsider their refusal to join talks to resolve the crisis in the fractious state.
But he also struck a defiant tone, calling the opposition liars and bandits, and appealing to religious sensitivities in the conservative Muslim country by criticizing the mixing of unrelated men and women among Sanaa protesters.
Around 5,000 women demonstrated against him in Sanaa on Saturday, with similar numbers in the industrial city of Taiz, south of the capital. The anti-Saleh protests have had the support of the main opposition coalition, which includes leftists but whose largest member is the Islamist party, Islah.
“Oh youth, the honor of women has been slandered,” the women chanted, referring to Saleh’s remarks.
Some women brought their young daughters to the protests, including one with her face painted with the image of the Yemeni flag encircled by a heart on her cheek and the word “Leave” scrawled on her forehead.
“If Saleh read the Koran he wouldn’t have made this accusation,” said one protester, who gave her name only as Majda. “We ask he be tried according to Islamic law.”
Saudi and Western allies of Yemen fear a prolonged standoff could ignite clashes between rival military units and cause chaos that would benefit an active al Qaeda wing operating in the poor, mountainous Arabian Peninsula country.
VIOLENCE IN SOUTH
Gulf foreign ministers invited Saleh and his opponents to talks on a transfer of power, which diplomatic sources said had stalled in recent weeks over Saleh’s desire for immunity from prosecution for him and his family.
The Gulf plan announced last Sunday appeared to promise Saleh immunity, and he accepted it the next day. Saleh has offered elections this year, but says he should stay in power to oversee the change or hand over to what he calls “safe hands.”
Opposition leaders said on Saturday they would send a delegation headed by former foreign minister Mohammed Basindwa, now an opposition politician, to Saudi Arabia on Sunday to explain their stance on the Gulf-mediated talks proposal.
The opposition coalition previously refused to go to the Riyadh talks because it wanted to focus on forcing Saleh out within two weeks, and the Gulf proposal did not include a quick timetable for transition.
More than 116 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces since late January, and there are fears the violence could escalate in the country, half of whose 23 million people own a gun.
In the southern port city of Aden, gunmen on Saturday tried to storm a police station and then battled with security forces for half an hour before being driven back by rooftop sniper fire, a local official said.
Officials said protesters in Aden tried to shut down traffic in the city in support of a strike call, but security patrols were removing makeshift roadblocks. Most shops were closed.
In the southern province of Abyan, where both al Qaeda militants and southern separatists are active, a gunman on a motorcycle shot dead a soldier as he walked in the street, medical sources said. A local official blamed al Qaeda.
Gunmen attacked a security patrol overnight in the southern province of Lahej, wounding two soldiers in an attack tentatively blamed on separatists, a local official said.
In Amran province north of Sanaa, gunmen attacked a prison late on Friday, killing three guards and freeing 20 death row inmates, a local official said.
He said authorities managed to recapture all but one prisoner — an Islamist convicted of shooting dead a member of the country’s tiny Jewish community in 2008.
Saleh, who has already lost control of several provinces, was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and cement a truce with Shi’ite Muslim rebels in the north even before the start of the protests, inspired by the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents.