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Yemen crowds call for Saleh removal

Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters have packed the streets of several Yemeni cities to demand the president's removal and denounce a munitions factory blast that left at least 100 people dead.

Opposition groups have accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh of collaborating with al Qaida militants by pulling back the army from the factory area and allowing the terror network to overrun the area.

Saleh has co-operated closely with the US in the battle against Yemen's branch of al Qaida, which has used areas of Yemen long out of state control to launch attacks including the attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into underwear.

But the president has also battled regional rebellions in the north and south, and the opposition accuses him of exploiting Western fears that al Qaida could rise to fill a vacuum if he were ousted.

State control in Yemen has diminished sharply this month as massive demonstrations spiralled in major cities and the government pulled police from many towns, and anti-government protesters in other areas pushed out police and soldiers and set up militias for self-defence.

The protesters blame Saleh for mismanagement, repression and the fatal shootings of protesters, and say they will not relent until he goes.

The anti-government protests resumed in Sanaa as well as Saada, where Shiite rebels have fought Saleh's forces for years, and Marib, an al Qaida stronghold and one of several areas where the central government has little authority.

Saleh's stay in power "constitutes a grave danger to Yemen and its people and endangers the region's security and stability", an opposition statement said.

Monday's explosion was apparently set off accidentally after armed men described by residents as religious extremists seized the factory and nearby towns in the mountains southern province of Abyan, where al Qaida has been active.

Residents said later that someone may have dropped a lit cigarette next to explosives at the site. The Interior Ministry said at least 100 people were killed and 80 injured in the explosion.

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