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Protesters vow escalation as Saleh promises to quit

Yemeni protesters demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s immediate resignation vowed to step up street protests and voiced suspicions that Saleh’s inner circle could frustrate a Gulf plan for him to step down.

Saleh has ruled this impoverished Arabian Peninsula state for nearly 33 years and has agreed to a Gulf Arab initiative that would lead to him standing down within a month of an agreement being signed with the opposition.

No announcement has been made as to when and how an agreement would be formalised. The main opposition coalition has welcomed the plan. It says it is still negotiating with Gulf and US mediators over its role in a transition government.

But the youths and activists who provided the momentum for the anti-Saleh protests are sceptical.

They worry the ruling party and the opposition, which served in Parliament before the protests, will sacrifice for political gain the wishes of tens of thousands in the streets demanding democratic reforms, and they do not trust Saleh’s intentions.

“There’s a lot of resentment among the youths because the opposition agreed to this initiative,” Abdulhafez Muajeb, the leader of a protest movement in the Red Sea port of Hudaida, told Reuters.

“From our end, we will escalate our protests until we force the president to step down immediately.”

In Sana’a, where protesters have camped out for weeks, many shouted: “No negotiation, no dialogue — resign or flee.”

Violence threatens plan
Analysts say that even when a 30-day time period for Saleh’s resignation is decided, a window of opportunity for unrest exists that could derail the transition plan.

“Tribal leaders or the president’s sons or other leaders could do anything, because by this agreement they will be the losers,” Yemeni analyst Ali Seif Hassan said. “If there is no civil war, they will lose. But if there is a war, they could be winners because they would lead the fighting.”

That would worry Washington and neighbouring top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, who fear a descent into chaos would leave room for al-Qaeda’s ambitious Yemen-based wing to further entrench itself. The country sits on a strategic sea lane where about three million barrels of oil pass daily.

Scores of demonstrators have been killed in months of unrest in Yemen inspired by uprisings across north Africa and the Middle East that toppled Tunisia and Egypt’s veteran leaders. Many worry that Yemen, where at least half the population owns a gun, could easily descend into bloodshed if the crisis drags on.

Clashes between Saleh loyalists and protesters broke out in the city of Turbah, which is in the Taiz province south of capital Sana’a. Police opened fire to break up the clashes, residents said, and three protesters and one loyalist were hurt.

As unrest continues, prices have skyrocketed with the price of cooking gas quadrupling. The currency has plummeted to 243 against the dollar, from 214 nine weeks ago.

“The longer this goes on, the worse for the economy. As the economy continues to decline you’ll see more and more people in the streets, but it’s not yet certain whose side they’ll be on,” said Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen.

Saleh has also attracted rallies of supporters in the tens of thousands. He has also maintained his support from most military units, many of which are run by his relatives. His son runs the country’s republican guard.

That unit fired on the Had district in the southern province of Lahej on Sunday, residents told Reuters, in retaliation for an earlier attack by armed tribesmen on its troops. Six were killed in clashes that followed, three of them soldiers.

Mistrust high
Scepticism runs high among members of the opposition despite it officially welcoming the Gulf Cooperation Council’s transition proposal. The plan envisages Saleh organising a new Cabinet led by an opposition member of his choice before transfering powers to his vice-president within 30 days.

The opposition, led by Islamist and leftist parties, said it would not join the president’s new Cabinet. Members who asked not to be identified told Reuters the opposition was afraid of being linked to the Cabinet in the event Saleh did not resign. “There are concerns that we could share in the government and then the president would not stick to his promise to resign after 30 days. The man is well known for not sticking to his agreements,” one opposition leader said.

Saleh has twice reneged on promises not to run for re-election. Officials on both sides said they had been extremely close to a power transfer deal last month before it fell apart, possibly over concerns Saleh’s family would not be granted immunity from prosecution.

Under the Gulf plan, Saleh, his family and aides would be granted immunity. The opposition has accepted this but may face an uphill battle to sell such a deal to street protesters, who say they want officials put on trial after the crackdown.

“Thirty days is a long time in Yemen, anything can happen,” said Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik. “There is still more drama to be played out.” – Reuters

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