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Yemen leader to step down this year

The president of Yemen has pledged to step down more than a year early but refused to immediately resign, infuriating tens of thousands of demonstrators.

The opposition said it would not accept President Ali Abdullah Saleh's offer to resign by the end of the year in response to nationwide anti-government protests, which have swelled dramatically since security forces fatally shot more than 40 demonstrators on Friday.

"The president's statements are just another political manoeuvre," chief opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri said on Tuesday. "What was acceptable yesterday is not acceptable for us today."

The stand-off pushed Yemen closer to open confrontation between the two sides, fuelling Western fears that President Saleh's 32-year-old regime could be replaced by chaos, or a leadership less likely to co-operate with US military operations against the local branch of al-Qaida.

Anger at Friday's shootings splintered President Saleh's remaining support among the country's most powerful institutions - and influential clerics, tribal leaders and military commanders all began calling for his departure. Some of the country's most senior army officials declared their loyalty to the opposition on Monday.

The president responded with a concession, pledging in a meeting with senior officials, military commanders and tribal leaders on Monday evening that he would to step down by the end of the year. He tried to placate demonstrators by promising this month not to run again, or let his son replace him, when his term ends in September 2013.

A presidential spokesman, Ahmed al-Sufi, said President Salah also pledged not to hand power to the military.

The president hardened his position on Tuesday, saying the defection of commanders including his chief military adviser, Major Gen Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, was a "mutiny and a coup against constitutional legitimacy."

"Any dissent within the military institution will negatively affect the whole nation," President Saleh said in a nationally televised warning to a meeting of Yemen's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. "The nation is far greater than the ambition of individuals who want to seize power."

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