Saleh balks at resignation deal

Refuses to sign pact as militia floods capital

A Yemeni soldier who defected to the opposition watched an antigovernment protest yesterday in the capital, Sana. A Yemeni soldier who defected to the opposition watched an antigovernment protest yesterday in the capital, Sana. (Mohammed Huwais/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Ahmed Al-Haj
Associated Press / May 23, 2011

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SANA, Yemen — Yemen’s embattled president resisted intense US and Arab pressure yesterday and refused to sign an agreement calling for him to step down in 30 days. New turmoil swept through the capital as armed supporters of the regime thronged the streets demanding he stay.

Hundreds of militiamen trapped the American ambassador and other envoys inside a diplomatic mission for hours.

The militiamen, armed with guns, knives, and swords, blocked the entrances to the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Sana. At least five US, European, and Arab ambassadors had gathered at the embassy, expecting President Ali Abdullah Saleh to arrive to sign the agreement.

Finally in the evening, Yemeni military helicopters landed at the embassy and freed the diplomats, taking them to the presidential palace. There they witnessed several Yemeni ruling party officials sign the accord. But Saleh, shown on state TV standing alongside the US ambassador, did not sign.

Saleh said afterward he would not do so unless opposition leaders attend and sign it as well in public, not “behind closed doors.’’

“If they don’t comply, they are dragging us to a civil war, and they will have to hold responsibility for the bloodshed in the past and the blood which will be spilled later on because of their stupidity,’’ Saleh warned in an address on state TV.

The developments threatened to wreck a US-backed, Gulf Arab-mediated accord that diplomats hope could resolve the turmoil that has raged in Yemen for the past three months, with tens of thousands of protesters demanding Saleh step down after 32 years in power and his regime unleashing a deadly crackdown.

The accord calls for Saleh to step down in 30 days and hand power to his vice president, in return for immunity from prosecution.

A coalition of opposition parties signed the accord in private on Saturday, and Saleh promised to sign it the following day.

If the mediation collapses, many fear further deterioration of the political situation, including an escalation of armed conflict between Saleh’s loyalists and military units that have joined the opposition.

At nightfall yesterday, tensions were high in Sana. Progovernment gunmen and soldiers locked down main streets around the capital with roadblocks, while tens of thousands of anti-Saleh demonstrators massed at their camp in a central square, worried that a new crackdown could ensue.

Saleh has backed away from signing the deal at least twice before, adding to the opposition’s deep mistrust of a leader known for adept political maneuvering that has kept him in power for decades.

A Gulf official in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, warned that the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional body that mediated the deal, would withdraw from mediation if Saleh did not sign by the end of the day yesterday.

Throughout yesterday, hundreds of armed Saleh loyalists deployed in the streets of Sana in what appeared to be a campaign orchestrated by his regime, aiming to show that the public wants him to stay.

Dozens gathered in front of the Police Academy, where the ruling party general assembly had convened to discuss the deal. “We are coming under pressure, to reject the initiative,’’ said Mohammed Sa’ad, a member of the assembly. Others erected a big tent in one of Sana’s main streets, blocking traffic and raising banners that read: “Don’t go, don’t sign!’’

Another armed crowd blocked the road in front of the presidential palace, chanting, “We will not permit the president’s ouster.’’

The diciest moment came when hundreds of armed Saleh loyalists massed outside the UAE Embassy. The blocked its entrances, and at one point attacked a convoy bringing the GCC’s chief mediator, secretary-general Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, to the building. They pounded on the car, tried to prevent it from entering, and shouted against Gulf intervention in Yemeni affairs, witnesses said. top stories on Twitter

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