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Mideast unrest spreads to Yemen as thousands march against ruler

The current unrest in the Middle East spread to impoverished Yemen on Thursday as tens of thousands of protesters angry over unemployment and political oppression marched through the capital against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Instability in Yemen is a major concern for the United States, which has been working with Saleh's government to defeat an entrenched al-Qaida network that claimed responsibility for last year's attempted bombings of planes over U.S. airspace. Officials fear that anarchy in the country would give militants a strategic base in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.

Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, has been unable to stem unemployment and improve education, health care and sanitation in the region's poorest nation. Anger toward him and his government has been steadily growing, especially among young activists and tribal leaders. He has also faced an intensifying secessionist movement in the south.

The United States has expanded its intelligence and security roles in the country, and American military aid is expected to reach at least $250 million this year, a dramatic increase from previous years. But Washington has long been wary of Saleh, who runs a government based on patronage networks and has a history making questionable deals with enemies, including Islamic militants.

"I saw many, many people today, in the thousands," said Ahmed Arman, a human rights lawyer in the capital, Sana. "There were four demonstrations, and they were organized by the opposition. The majority of the demonstrators were young people, but there were others there as well. They are calling for political change -- a complete reform of the political system."

The demonstrations unfolded as the region brimmed with anger and frustration that have sparked protests against authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. Some Yemeni protesters joked that Saleh should "go the way" of former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled his country Jan. 14 after weeks of demonstrations.

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