Activists question the timing of al-Qaida cleric's killing saying it could help president Ali Abdullah Saleh cling on to power
|Street protests against president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, on September 25 during which three people died. Photograph: Mohammed Ansi/ Mohammed Ansi/Xinhua Press/Corbis|
The death of the Yemen-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was greeted with ambivalence and scepticism on the streets of Sana'a, where for more than eight months anti-government activists have been calling for the downfall of president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Hopes for a negotiated end to the crisis were dashed last week when Saleh suddenly returned from Saudi Arabia, where he spent had three months recovering from an assassination attempt.
On Friday around 100,000 protesters joined a mass rally, filling a two-mile stretch of a ring road north of the capital and calling for the resignation of Saleh and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
"Most Yemenis don't even know who Anwar Awlaki is. I think that speaks for itself," said opposition party leader Hasan Zaid.
Some protesters voiced concern that Awlaki's killing could help the president cling on to the office he has held for 33 years. The US has cultivated Saleh as an ally in its fight against al-Qaida, more than doubling its military aid to $150m last year, and Saleh has repeatedly warned the US that his departure would mean gains for the terrorist group.
"We always question the timing of these announcements from our government. Saleh is on the back foot and on the verge of stepping down and suddenly Anwar Awlaki is killed," said Fayza Sulieman, a female protest leader. "We all know that Saleh's fight against al-Qaida is the only thread of support keeping him in office. We pray that this news does not distract the world from our struggle against this tyrannical regime."
Walid al-Matari, an opposition protester at Sana'a's Change Square, said: "We are not interested in Anwar Awlaki, this is just one man. Our fight is against the corrupt regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh."
Demonstrators claim that for years Saleh has allowed al-Qaida affiliates to thrive and launch attacks in order to reap the political and financial benefits. Now, as Saleh appears once again to have backed away from a deal that would see him exchange power for immunity, he may be looking to capitalise on Awlaki's death.
"Terrorism in Yemen relies on a lack of clarity, and on grievances caused by a corrupt and incompetent regime," said Zaid. If Saleh's government were replaced, he said, "the dark holes in society in which these groups seek refuge will be lit up, and their resources and appeal would be diminished".
In an interview on Thursday, his first since his return from Saudi Arabia, Saleh said he would not stand down as promised if his opponents were allowed to stand in elections to succeed him.
"If we transfer power and [rival forces] are there, this will mean that we have given in to a coup," he said. "If we transfer power, and they are in their positions, and they are still decision-makers, this will be very dangerous. This will lead to civil war."