Hundreds of thousands of Saleh supporters rally in Yemen
The rally, which marked 35 years since the founding of Saleh's Arab nationalist General People's Congress, echoed demands to end the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen, and sent out a strong signal that the strongman remains a force to be reckoned with in the war-torn country.
The former president has retained the loyalty of some of the best-equipped units in the military despite being forced out of power in 2012, and said he was ready to deploy "tens of thousands of fighters to the frontlines", on condition the Houthi-led government, who he aligned with in 2014, train and pay them.
Saleh – who survived the Arab Spring protests that saw a string of his peers ousted from Egypt to Libya – appeared in person at the rally and gave a brief speech behind bulletproof glass, surrounded by heavily armed guards.
"We are political pioneers with a solid anchor, and we have been facing conspiracies against us since 2011," he told the cheering crowd, referring to the start of protests in Sanaa that eventually led to his resignation.
Crowds filled the four-square-kilometre square and poured into the streets of the capital, waving the blue flag of the GPC and carrying pictures of 75-year-old Saleh, who ruled Yemen with an iron fist for more than three decades before stepping down in after a bloody year-long uprising.
Saleh's supporters had travelled to Sanaa from across the impoverished country, camping out in Sabaeen Square overnight ahead of the rally.
Houthi rebels had set up checkpoints at the main entrances to the city but did nothing to stop the demonstrators from reaching the square.
|Read also: Houthis 'declare war' on ally Ali Abdullah Saleh amid signs of divorce|
'Allies for show'
Tensions have been rising between Saleh and his former foe, rebel chief Abdul Malik al-Houthi, who in 2014 joined ranks in a shock alliance that drove the government out of the capital and into the southern province of Aden.
But analysts suggest the rally serves in part as a public protest against the Houthis, who along with Saleh, have had a grasp on the capital since 2014.
The rebels have rapidly risen in a parallel government in Sanaa, and now hold clout in the city's economy, defence and educational ministries, but former troops and civil servants in the rebel-run government have not been paid for months.
On Thursday, Saleh's second-in-command in the General People's Congress, Aref al-Zouka criticised the Houthis for financial mismanagement and corruption, saying the party refused to be "allies for show".
Meanwhile, a war of words between Saleh and Abdul Malik al-Houthi, whose rebel group have historically clashed with Saleh's troops, has escalated in the past week.
The two have publicly accused each other of treason, with Saleh hinting his allies were merely "a militia" and the rebels warning the former president he would "bear the consequences" of the insult.
The Houthis reportedly suspect Saleh has been negotiating with a Saudi-led Arab coalition that supports the Yemeni government.
Saleh was a strong ally of Saudi Arabia from the late 1970s, when he fought the Houthis for control of Yemen, until 2014.
The Saleh camp has meanwhile accused the Houthis of aiming to consolidate their power in Sanaa.
The war between the governments of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, allied with a Saudi-led Arab military coalition, and the rebel camp has killed more than 10,000 Yemenis since 2015 and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
On Wednesday, more than 40 people, including civilians, were killed in air raids on Sanaa, where the Saudi-led coalition has been bombing the Houthis since their military intervention in 2015.
|Read more on the crisis in Yemen here