SANAA (Reuters) - Embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh said on Friday he was ready to cede power to prevent more bloodshed in Yemen but only to what he called "safe hands" as a massive "Day of Departure" street protest against him began.
Western countries are alarmed that al Qaeda militants entrenched in the Arabian Peninsula country could exploit any chaos arising from a messy transition of power if Saleh, a pivotal U.S. and Saudi ally fighting for his political life, finally steps down after 32 years in power.
"We don't want power, but we need to hand power over to safe hands, not to sick, resentful or corrupt hands," Saleh said in a rousing speech to supporters shown on state television as tens of thousands of his foes rallied elsewhere in the capital Sanaa.
Thousands of Saleh supporters in Sanaa were also out early on the streets for what they dubbed the "Friday of Tolerance."
"We are ready to leave power but only for safe hands," Saleh said. "We are against firing a single bullet and when we give concessions this is to ensure there is no bloodshed. We will remain steadfast and challenge them with all power we have."
Protesters encamped in their thousands outside Sanaa University for six weeks declared Friday a "Day of Departure" when they hoped to bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets in a further attempt to oust Saleh, a serial survivor of civil war, separatist movements and militant attacks.
Similar mass protests on March 18 left 52 people dead, apparently gunned down by plainclothes snipers. That bloodshed prompted a string of generals, diplomats and tribal leaders to abandon Saleh, severely weakening his position.
"The government cannot just shoot its way out of this crisis," Philip Luther, Amnesty's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement. "Whether in uniform or in plainclothes, security forces must be immediately stopped from using live ammunition on unarmed protesters."
RIVAL GATHERINGS IN SANAA
Some Saleh loyalists were carrying guns and waving traditional Yemeni daggers and al Arabiya satellite television said Saleh might address them later.
Some were riding motorbikes with large posters of Saleh affixed to them, waving flags and playing patriotic music. "No to chaos, yes to security and stability," their banners said.
In another district of town near the university thousands of anti-Saleh protesters were walking with their prayer rugs toward Friday prayers, their mood hardened since the deaths of protests the Friday before.
"I came here to get rid of this butcher because he killed our comrades," said Abdullah Jabali, 33, a student, who said he did not believe Saleh's promises to stand down within a year.
"I just want this president and his family to leave peacefully, not to leave the country but to step down," said Mahdi Mohammed, 36, a translator from Aden.
Security was tight, as the army conducted five separate checks on people entering the protest zone.
Saleh, who oversaw the 1990 unification of north and south Yemen and emerged victorious from a civil war four years later, has shown no signs publicly of being prepared to quit now.
He has offered a string of concessions, all rejected by opposition parties, including this week to hold presidential elections by January 2012. He has also warned military officers who have turned against him not to plot a coup.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Saleh and top general Ali Mohsen -- the most significant of this week's defectors -- were hashing out a deal whereby both men resign within days to allow a civilian transitional government.
But Saleh was defiant in a speech on Thursday, offering only an amnesty to defecting troops at a meeting with commanders.
Army units have clashed twice this week with presidential guards headed by Saleh's son Ahmed in the southern town of Mukalla on the Arabian Sea. Saleh also has the intelligence services, run by close allies, on this side.
Washington and Riyadh, Yemen's main financial backer, have long seen Saleh as a bulwark against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has tried to stage attacks beyond Yemeni soil since 2009 in both Saudi Arabia and United States.
"The chaos of a post-Saleh Yemen in which there is no managed transition may lead to conditions that could allow AQAP and other extremist elements to flourish," analyst Christopher Boucek said in a forthcoming issue of the militant affairs periodical CTC Sentinel.
Yemen lies on key shipping routes and borders the world's leading oil exporter Saudi Arabia. It has often seemed to be on the brink of disintegration: Northern Shi'ites often taken up arms against Saleh and southerners dream of a separate state.
With no clear successor in line and with conflicts gripping northern and southern Yemen, the country of 23 million faces the risk of a breakup, in addition to poverty, a water shortage, dwindling oil reserves and lack of central government control.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Mark Heinrich)