SANAA, Yemen, March 25 (UPI) -- Thousands of Yemenis rallied in rival demonstrations Friday, a day after President Ali Abdullah Saleh suggested an orderly transition of power "to safe hands."
Soldiers fired in the air to keep government supporters from marching on the opposition rally, the BBC reported. Both sides manned checkpoints in Sanaa and the streets were full of gunmen, witnesses said.
Saleh told his partisans he was willing to surrender power, but only to "safe hands."
"There is no way, by any means or circumstance, for the political system to offer itself to the gallows," he said in a statement aired on pan-Arab al-Jazeera television Thursday. "By all means come for political dialogue and power can be transferred peacefully through constitutional institutions."
His statement, which indicated no time frame for a power transfer, came as he was involved in negotiations on the timing and conditions for ending his 32-year rule, Yemeni and U.S. officials said Thursday.
The Wall Street Journal reported Saleh and top Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar -- who broke ranks with the president this week and declared his support for protesters demanding that Saleh resign immediately -- were putting together a deal in which both men would resign within days.
"Both sides have agreed on the main points of departure and Saturday is expected to be the day that Saleh and General Ahmar both step down," a senior official familiar with the negotiations told the Journal.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "We do not build our policy in any country around a single person, and we obviously will look forward to having a solid relationship [with] the leader of Yemen."
Despite the talks -- involving representatives of 20 or more Yemeni factions and interest groups, often through intermediaries, The New York Times reported -- Saleh spoke scornfully of anti-government protesters on state-run Yemen TV Thursday and accused the opposition of refusing to negotiate a power-sharing deal. He also offered to pardon military defectors if they would return to the government's side.
The anti-government protesters called Friday the "Day of Departure." Government supporters called it a "Day of Tolerance."
A week ago, about 100,000 pro-democracy protesters gathered for Friday Prayer just before snipers loyal to Saleh opened fire on the crowd, killing 52 people, witnesses said.
A large number of pro-Saleh tribesmen, who the Times said were widely believed to be paid by the governing party, were in Sanaa late Thursday to rally around the president.