Yemen braces for new protests as Saleh refuses to go

AFP , Monday 23 May 2011

Street protests to intensify as opposition vows to step-up pressure after Saleh refused to sign transition plan

Anti-government protestors take part in a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of Yemen's reunification, in Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday. Billboard center reads in Arabic, "The real unity, is achieved by the people's peaceful revolution" (AP).

Yemen's opposition vowed on Monday to step up street protests but said it was determined to avoid violence, after President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to sign a Gulf-brokered deal for his leaving office.

"Our only option is to intensify the peaceful revolt and continue to choke the regime, then finish it," said Mohammed al-Qahtan, a spokesman for the Common Forum coalition of parliamentary opposition parties.

"The regime is trying to push the situation toward violence, but it will not push the country into war," he said.

Saleh had explicitly warned of civil war on Sunday as he refused to sign the transition plan brokered by impoverished Yemen's wealthy Gulf neighbours that would have seen him step down after more than three decades in power in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution.

"If they remain stubborn, we will confront them everywhere with all possible means," Saleh said.

"If they don't bow, and want to take the country into a civil war, let them be responsible for it and for the blood that was shed and that will be shed if they insist on their stupidity."

Youth leader Wassim al-Qershi vowed on Monday that the protest movement would remain peaceful but criticised the Gulf transition plan for its promise of immunity for Saleh and his aides.

"The president thinks that the only solution is to provoke a civil war between rival units of the army," Qershi said. "We want to preserve the peaceful nature of our movement.

"The Gulf initiative is a way out for the president, and not a solution for Yemen," he said, adding: "We want the president and his aides to be tried."

In swift reactions to Saleh's renewed rejection of the plan, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced late on Sunday that it was suspending its mediation efforts, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused him of "turning back on his commitments."

"The United States is deeply disappointed by President Saleh's continued refusal to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative," Clinton said in a statement.

"He is turning his back on his commitments and disregarding the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people," she added.

GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani flew out of Sanaa after Saleh failed to ink the plan.

In response, GCC ministers announced at a meeting in Riyadh that they had suspended their mediation efforts, although they expressed hope that Saleh might still sign up to the deal, which they described as "the best way possible to overcome the current situation."

State television on Sunday aired footage of Saleh standing next to Zayani and US ambassador Gerald Michael Feierstein, as members of his ruling General People's Congress signed the deal, a day after the opposition had.

The president insisted that the earlier signing was not good enough and demanded that the opposition come to his palace for the ceremony.

"The opposition will be a partner in the transitional government for 90 days, so are we going to deal over the phone?" the president asked, alluding to the terms of the GGC transition plan.

"Why don't they come?" he added.

Since late January, security forces and armed Saleh supporters have mounted a bloody crackdown on protests demanding his departure, leaving at least 181 people dead, according to a toll compiled from reports by activists and medics.

Under the terms of the GCC plan, Saleh would hand power to the vice president 30 days after it is signed, and he and his aides would be granted immunity from prosecution by parliament.

A national unity government led by a prime minister from the opposition would be formed, and a presidential election would follow 60 days after Saleh's departure.

Hundreds of thousands of Saleh opponents took to the streets of Sanaa on Sunday, in their biggest rally since protests began in January.

Medics said gunmen shot dead one demonstrator. Opposition members blamed loyalist "thugs."

But on Monday, roadblocks set up by Saleh supporters had been taken down, and life in Sanaa had returned to a semblance of normality.

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