SANA, 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.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office for more than three decades, announced Wednesday he would not seek re-election in 2013 and would not seek to pass power to his son. Saleh's pledge was seen as an attempt to defuse growing calls for his ouster.
Opposition groups said they are suspicious of Saleh's offer, however, and want concrete proposals for change.
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 Sana, the capital, 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 marches were largely peaceful, although witnesses said police opened fire in one provincial town, critically wounding a protester. In the capital, scuffles and stone-throwing briefly erupted between government supporters and opposition marchers, but police stepped in and there were no reports of injuries.
The White House said President Barack Obama called Saleh and urged him to follow through on his pledge to reform his government and asked that Yemeni security forces refrain from violence against protesters.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley welcomed Saleh's "positive statements" about including opposition elements in a reform process, but said that "it is important for governments across the region . . . to follow statements with actions."
Reforms stumbled, Jordan's king admits
Jordan's King Abdullah II on Thursday acknowledged that reforms in the country have "slowed and stumbled" and urged the nation's Muslim opposition to work with the new government to give the people a greater say in politics.
The appeal came a day after the powerful Muslim Brotherhood rejected an offer from the country's newly appointed Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit to join his Cabinet. A Muslim Brotherhood leader, Zaki Bani Rsheid, said the movement turned down Bakhit "because we want the prime minister to be elected, not appointed by the king, and we want real elections.".
Jamil Abu-Bakr, a senior Brotherhood leader, said a protest was planned for today.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Thursday with Abdullah, who is a close U.S. ally. "The secretary noted in the call that we appreciate the example that Jordan has set in allowing freedom of expression during recent protests," Crowley said.
Doubts on reform: A secret U.S. diplomatic communique released by WikiLeaks indicates that in a cable dated Oct. 8, 2009, U.S. Ambassador R. Stephen Beecroft said he had little faith in King Abdullah II's promises to initiate reforms in Jordan. The Norwegian daily Aftenposten on Thursday published a cable by Beecroft, who wrote that Abdullah "as a progressive reformer often fails to match up with his actions on the ground."
Algeria to lift 1992 state of emergency
Algeria will lift the state of emergency that has been in effect since 1992 in the "very near future," President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was quoted as saying Thursday.
Even so, demonstrations still won't be allowed in the capital of Algiers, Bouteflika said, according to state media. The government says the state of emergency was a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism, but critics charge that it has been used to muzzle the political opposition by banning marches. The emergency was declared as Algeria spiraled into a civil war between Islamists and government forces, a yearslong battle that killed up to 200,000 people. Violence has tapered off and attacks by militants are now only sporadic.
Riots broke out in Algeria last month after a spike in food prices, leaving two people dead, and hospital and bank employees went on strike this week. An opposition group is planning a protest march in Algiers on Feb. 12. The government has warned them that the gathering is still banned and that they are responsible if violence breaks out.
Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said the United States welcomed Bouteflika's pledge to lift the state of emergency, but that action needed to follow his words. "We're encouraged by his statement," he told reporters in Washington. "If it is indeed lifted, it will be a positive step forward."
Online protest in Syria
Syrians are organizing online campaigns for a "day of rage" in Damascus today and Saturday. More than 13,000 people joined a Facebook page calling for "the Syrian Revolution 2011," although many of the members are believed to live outside the country.