Image: Protesters attend Friday prayers
Muhammed Muheisen  /  AP
Anti-government protestors attend Friday prayers during a demonstration against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on Friday.
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updated 4/1/2011 7:25:27 PM ET 2011-04-01T23:25:27

Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis packed a square in the capital and marched in villages and cities across the nation on Friday in what appeared to be the largest demonstrations in more than a month of demands the country's longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.

Youth leaders said they planned a march in the direction of the heavily guarded presidential palace.

Many mosques in the capital shut down — a move unprecedented for Friday, the Muslim day of prayer — as worshippers and clerics streamed to the square outside Sanaa University.

Protesters filled the plaza and spilled out along three adjoining streets. Previous demonstrations have taken up the square and at most two of the streets that feed into it.

The demonstrators set up tents and hung up posters of young men who were fatally shot by government forces during previous protests.

In a parallel demonstration, tens of thousands of government supporters rallied to al-Sabaeen Square outside the presidential palace, where Saleh made a brief speech, telling them, "With my blood and soul, I redeem you," a common chant in the Arab world.

Saleh has ruled Yemen for 32 years. He warns that if he is ousted, Yemen will descend into chaos, boosting the al-Qaida presence already in the country.

On Friday evening, two local newspaper reporters and a television cameraman were detained by security forces, according to Gamal Anaam, member of the Yemeni journalists' union. A security official declined to comment.

Security forces also seized a close aide to Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a top military commander and longtime confidant of the president who joined the opposition. The aide, Abdul-Ghani al-Shimiri, who is al-Ahmar's political and media assistant, was detained outside his Sanaa home Friday and is being held by the National Security agency, according to a statement by al-Ahmar's office.

Al-Ahmar's was the most significant in a wave of defections from Saleh's regime by military commanders, ruling party members and others, swelling the ranks of the opposition and leaving him isolated. Al-Ahmar, commander of the powerful 1st Armored Division, deployed his troops at the central square, where demonstrators gather.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was concerned about the situation in Yemen but insisted counterterrorism cooperation was continuing between the two countries.

"It's not something that's directed at one person," Toner said, describing counterterrorism efforts as the top U.S. priority in the country. "It's ongoing cooperation with the government of Yemen."

Still, he said the U.S. wanted resolution to the unrest in Yemen and stressed that Saleh has made concessions. Demonstrators also have made movements, "but they need to obviously come together and forge a way forward," he said.

Saleh escalated his confrontation with the rapidly expanding uprising a week ago, taking on emergency powers that give him a freer hand to quell protests. Parliament, which is packed with his supporters, passed a 30-day state of emergency that suspends the constitution, bars protests and gives security forces far-reaching powers of arrest.

In another development, plainclothes militias were seen taking up positions around the capital. An army officer said the militias are under the command of Saleh's son and are designed to be deployed quickly to trouble spots. He spoke under condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

In a failed attempt to appease the protesters, Saleh offered not to run again when his current term ends in 2013. He then offered to step down by the end of this year and open a dialogue with the leaders of the demonstrators.

Protesters rejected all his offers, furious after his security forces shot dead more than 40 demonstrators in Sanaa last month.

On Friday, there were anti-Saleh protests in at least 14 other provinces around the country. Witnesses said hundreds of thousands of people attended demonstrations in the provinces of Aden, Taaz, and Hadramout.

The Sanaa crowd was supported by soldiers with anti-aircraft guns and Kalashnikov rifles, who set up half a dozen checkpoints around the square to prevent intrusions by president's loyalists.

Protesters, who have called for a "Friday of Salvation," raised black cards while chanting "Ali Leave!" Women and children, their faces painted in the colors of the Yemeni flag, or the word "Leave," joined the protests.

Cleric Taha al-Moutawkel told the crowd during afternoon prayers that Saleh's regime was already collapsing, and he vowed that the protests will remain peaceful.

"Whenever they threaten us, we will face their tanks with our bare chests," he said. "Saleh is over and he knows that, but he is betting that people will eventually run out of patience."

He said that even if the West backs Saleh, the people will keep pushing for his ouster.

"If the president's popular legitimacy plunges, no any power in the West or the East can bring him back," he said.

The demonstrators blame Saleh for mismanagement, repression and the fatal shootings of protesters. They say they will not relent until he goes.

Story: Syrian forces kill 3 amid 'Day of Martyrs'

In other protests Friday across the Middle East:

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Video: Rallies for Mideast reform meet with resistance

  1. Closed captioning of: Rallies for Mideast reform meet with resistance

    >>> a new wave of protests swept other nations in the middle east today and in this era, as we say, of big, fast changes and foreign policy that can change on the spot, by the day, the u.s. is watching all of it very closely. so is nbc's ron allen , who is watching it from amman, jordan , tonight. ron, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. pro-democracy activists in this part of the world wanted to make friday a big day . they were hoping to generate some momentum. but they met fierce resistance everywhere. entrenched leaders fighting back and showing little interest in compromise or concessions. in syria these internet images carry the crackle of gunfire and scenes of protesters overcome with tear gas . reports say as many as seven more people died just days after president bashar al assad dismissed immediate reforms as a sign of weakness. there was good news for two americans being held by syria. tik root and mohammed radwan both were set free. they had been jailed for alleged involvement in the uprising. in yemen, the largest crowds yet, hundreds of thousands. president ali abdullah saleh still refusing to step down. that as opponents backed by military and tribal leaders demand his immediate resignation. dwie dividing a volatile country where al qaeda looks to gain from the chaos. and egypt, where victory seemed won. thousands returned to liberation square , worried leaders from the old mubarak regime are hijacking the revolution. the crowds demanding investigations, accountability, true reforms and freedoms now. and there were demonstrations for and against the government here in jordan today, but no confrontations. police were out in big numbers keeping things under control. another example of how leaders in this part of the world are making compromise -- are making revolution and reform a very tough thing to accomplish. brian.

    >> all right, nbc's ron allen in amman, jordan , tonight. ron,

Photos: July

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  1. A man prepares the grave of Hassan al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa, July 19. Fighting between government forces and opposition supporters erupted in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Monday, killing six people, among them al-Hora, opposition sources said. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, July 19. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl has ''will not leave'' written on her face during a rally to support Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa July 17. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Anti-government protestors shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, July 13. (Mohammed Hamoud / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An anti-government protester writes slogans on a wall using his own blood during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at Tagheer square in Sanaa on July 13. The words read "In my blood I protect Yemen." (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Girls light candles as they attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz July 9. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Yemeni anti-government protester displays bullets allegedly fired by supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration demanding Saleh’s ousting, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 8. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sit on stone pillars during a rally in support of President Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen, on July 8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged rallies around his vacant palace Friday after their leader's first TV appearance since being injured in a blast last month and leaving for treatment in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammed Al-Sayaghi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A supporter of Saleh kisses his picture as his supporters celebrate in Sanaa on July 7 after he appeared on television for the first time since he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saleh delivers a speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 7, making his first public appearance since he was wounded in an attack on his palace in Sanaa in June. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anti-government protesters join their hands and shout slogans demanding an end to the 32-year regime of President Saleh, in Sanaa on July 6. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A police vehicle is set ablaze during clashes between armed followers of the opposition and police in the southern city of Taiz on July 6. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A relative of victims of recent clashes talks to a member of the United Nations human rights investigation team, left, in Sanaa on July 5. The U.N. team arrived in Yemen last week to assess the situation in the country after months of unrest. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women recite prayers during a rally to demand the ouster of President Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on July 1. Tens of thousands of Yemenis turned Friday prayers into rallies for and against Saleh, who is recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt in June. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  2. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  3. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  4. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  5. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos

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