SANAA: Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh vowed Sunday to defend his three-decade regime "with every drop of blood", accusing opponents of hijacking gathering protests in a ploy to split the nation.
Despite two weeks of escalating protests demanding that he step down, after uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia forced the resignations of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Saleh has repeatedly refused to resign.
In his latest comments, reported by the state-run Saba news agency on Sunday, he accused his opponents of trying to revive secessionist efforts that sparked a short-lived civil war in 1994.
"There is a conspiracy against Yemen’s unity and territorial integrity and we, in the armed forces, have served to preserve the republican regime with every drop of blood we have," Saleh was quoted as saying by the state-run Saba news agency in a report on Sunday.
"We are trying in every way possible to deal with and overcome these difficulties democratically, through dialogue with all political leaders, but in vain."
His one concession has been to pledge not to seek re-election in 2013.
An AFP tally based on reports by medics and witnesses shows that at least 19 people have been killed in almost daily clashes since February 16.
Amnesty International has put the toll at 27, an average of nearly three killed every day, since the protests began. Most of the victims were killed in the southern city of Aden, with two in Sanaa and one in Taez in the north.
Pressure on Saleh to bow out intensified on Saturday when the leaders of Hashid and Baqil, two of Yemen’s most important tribes, abandoned the president and joined the anti-regime movement.
The protests have been strongest in south Yemen, which united with the Saleh-ruled north only in 1990.
The south attempted to secede in 1994, sparking a short-lived civil war that ended with the region being overrun by northern troops.
In an address to military and police forces late Saturday, Saleh accused southerners of again seeking to secede and "divide Yemen" and northerners of aiming to reinstate the monarchy that ruled the country until 1962.
The south has been the site of the deadliest violence since the start of the protests, with four people killed in a Friday night police assault on an anti-government protest in the port city of Aden.
A security source told AFP that five Southern Movement activists, including former diplomat Qassem Askar, had been arrested Sunday on suspicion of having fomented violence in a massive demonstration on Friday.
The demonstration, dubbed "the beginning of the end" of his regime which swept to power in Sanaa in 1978, saw an estimated 100,000 Yemenis turn out across the country.
Human rights group Amnesty International has said it received reports the security forces refused to allow the wounded to be taken to hospital after the attack.
But a Yemeni security official denied there was a police raid, blaming the deaths instead on the secessionist Southern Movement, according to the 26sep.net website of the defence ministry’s newspaper.
In the capital, students on Sunday maintained a sit-in outside Sanaa University, where they have vowed to remain until the fall of the Saleh regime.
And in the city of Taez, south of Sanaa, protesters continued their second week camping out in a main square to demand Saleh stand down.
Situated at the strategic southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, which is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, has been fighting Al-Qaeda insurgents in its south and east.
It is a key partner in the "war on terror" being waged by the United States, which maintains a major counter-terrorism base in Djibouti across the Bab al-Mandab strait in the Horn of Africa.