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Yemen’s president to hand over power in 30 days

Other parties approve deal with hesitation

Antigovernment protesters and soldiers called for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana, Yemen, yesterday. Antigovernment protesters and soldiers called for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana, Yemen, yesterday. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)
By Ahmed Al-Haj
Associated Press / April 24, 2011

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SANA, Yemen — Yemen’s embattled president agreed yesterday to a proposal by Gulf Arab mediators to step down within 30 days and hand power to his deputy in exchange for immunity from prosecution, a major about-face for the autocratic leader who has ruled for 32 years.

A coalition of seven opposition parties said it also accepted the deal but with reservations. Even if the differences are overcome, those parties do not speak for all of the hundreds of thousands of protesters seeking President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster, and signs were emerging that a deal on those terms would not end confrontations in the streets.

A day earlier, protesters staged the largest of two months of demonstrations, filling a five-lane boulevard across the capital with hundreds of thousands of people.

Day after day of protests have presented a stunning display of defiance in the face of a crackdown that has included sniper attacks and killed more than 130 people.

The uprising and a wave of defections by allies, including several top military commanders, have left Saleh clinging to power and now appear to be pushing him to compromise on his earlier refusal to leave office before his term ends in 2013.

For decades the former military officer has fended off numerous challenges, deftly maneuvering among the nation’s powerful and fractious tribes and using security forces to put down opponents.

Al Qaeda’s most active franchise has attacked his forces, an armed rebellion has battered the north of the country and a secessionist movement has reappeared in the once-independent south.

At the same time, the country is rapidly running out of water and oil and is the poorest in the Arab world.

US officials have watched the uprising with particular concern because Saleh has been an ally in fighting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen’s remote mountainous south and has made several nearly successful attempts to attack US and other targets abroad.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington welcomes the proposal for ending the crisis and called for immediate dialogue by all sides on a transfer of power.

“We will not speculate about the choices the Yemeni people will make or the results of their political dialogue,’’ he said. “It is ultimately for the people of Yemen to decide how their country is governed.’’

The opposition movement, fed up with poverty and corruption under Saleh, took inspiration from the toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and has grown in numbers since the first protests in early February.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes powerful Saudi Arabia, has been seeking to broker an end to the crisis in the fragile nation on the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula.

Under the latest draft, Yemen’s Parliament would grant Saleh legal protection from prosecution. The president would submit his resignation to lawmakers within 30 days and hand power to his vice president, who would call for new presidential elections.

Opposition spokesman Mohammed Kahtan described the Gulf council’s initiative as “positive,’’ and said the leaders of the opposition parties have all agreed on it.

Kahtan, however, listed several reservations. He said the opposition rejects the draft proposal’s call for the formation of a national unity government within seven days of the signing of a deal and wants to see Saleh step down first.

They are also against giving Yemen’s Parliament — dominated by Saleh’s party — the power to approve or reject his resignation, which could give the president time to stall.

Mohammed al-Sabri, another spokesman of the opposition, said if the parties sign the initiative it does not mean that the mass protests will come to a quick end. “We don’t represent everybody in the squares,’’ he said.

A spokesman for the youth movement that is one of the key organizers of street protests said any deal that protects him from prosecution is unacceptable. He should be held responsible for the killings of protesters and corruption, said Khaled al-Ansi.

The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met in the Emirati capital yesterday with his Yemeni counterpart, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, and urged him to accept the gulf council’s proposal.

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