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SANAA, Yemen – Tens of thousands of protesters Thursday staged unprecedented demonstrations against Yemen's autocratic president, a key U.S. ally in battling Islamic militants, as unrest inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia spread further in the Arab world.
The West is particularly concerned about instability in Yemen, home of the terrorist network al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. U.S. counterterrorism officials are worried that Yemeni security forces will be more focused on protecting the government, allowing al-Qaida to take advantage of any diminished scrutiny.
On Thursday, they led tens of thousands in protests in seven towns and cities across Yemen, with chants of "Down, down, down with the regime!" and banners calling on the president to resign now.
In the capital of Sanaa, several thousand government supporters staged a counterdemonstration, carrying banners warning that the opposition is trying to destabilize Yemen. Military helicopters hovered in some areas, and there was a heavy security presence around the Interior Ministry and the Central Bank.
The anti-government demonstration in Sanaa brought together young people, workers and women in black robes who initially planned to gather in downtown Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the same name of the site in downtown Cairo where Egypt's protesters have gathered daily since Jan. 25.
However, government supporters, including civil servants, pre-empted the protesters, taking control of the square first. One of the demonstrators, unemployed Iyad Nasser, said he and others had been paid to show up.
Several dozen of Saleh's supporters headed to where the anti-government protesters had assembled, near Sanaa's university, and scuffles erupted. Police separated the two camps.