Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yemen opposition eyes transition

Sana'a, Mar 24, 2011- An escalating anti-regime campaign sought a transition despite more concessions from Yemen's president, as fears rose of bloodshed and military units clashed on Thursday for the second time this week.

Yemen's disparate opposition brushed aside new concessions as having come too late, and focused on working behind the scenes on a transition which could spare the country a brutal civil war, political sources said.

Ahead of another possible escalation on the Muslim weekly day of prayers and rest, President Ali Abdullah Saleh urged his supporters to hold a mass show of support on Friday in a Sana'a square close to his presidential palace.

Even if deserted by long-time military, political, tribal and clerical backers, the veteran leader dubbed the event "Friday of Tolerance", countering the pro-change slogans of anti-regime demonstrators around the Arab world.

On Wednesday, parliament voted to pass a state of emergency declared by Saleh on March 18, just hours after regime loyalists last Friday gunned down 52 protesters outside their Sana'a University camp set up two months ago.

In theory, the measure outlaws demonstrations and would allow the regime to gag the media. On Wednesday, the Sana'a offices of pan-Arab news channel Al-Jazeera were shut down.

The opposition has said it will hold off until the following Friday, April 1, to march on the presidential palace for what many fear could prove a bloody final showdown.

President to leave

Saleh, in power for three decades, has offered his foes a deal on forming a unity government, drawing up a new electoral law, holding a legislative poll, and his successor to be named by the end of 2011 by newly elected MPs.

"But we don't want any more concessions. We just want the president to leave, and quickly," Rashad al-Sharaabi, a member of a youths' committee which has been a key player behind the uprising, told AFP.

He said behind-the-scenes consultations were taking place for a peaceful transition of power. "We want a civil society, not a military regime", cautioned the activist.

On Thursday, fresh clashes in Mukalla, southeast Yemen, between the regular army and elite Republican Guard loyal to Saleh left three wounded, witnesses and medics said.

The fighting pitted soldiers under the orders of a regional commander who has rallied to the side of anti-Saleh protesters and the Republican Guards, witnesses said.

On Monday, two soldiers were killed as the rivals also clashed near a presidential palace in Mukalla.

With fears of violence on the rise, Britain and Germany both announced the evacuation of most staff from their embassies in Sana'a and pressed any more of their nationals still in the Yemeni capital to leave.

Tide has turned

Russia's foreign ministry also advised all its citizens to immediately leave Yemen, which it said faced an "escalating trend".

Sources close to secret talks on a post-Saleh Yemen said General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a key figure who has sided with the protesters, was leading efforts to form a transitional council grouping representatives from all sides.

The International Crisis Group think tank said on Thursday "the political tide in Yemen has turned decisively against" Saleh, who would have to act swiftly to manoeuvre an honourable exit and prevent civil war.

Before the Sana'a bloodbath of March 18, "there was a chance for Saleh to negotiate and even lead a process of reform and peaceful transition of power. That opportunity is gone", the think tank said.

A peaceful transition could reassure Yemen's mighty neighbour Saudi Arabia and Saleh's allies in the United States, which have warned that the turmoil could boost al-Qaeda's franchise which is already based in Yemen.

Sana'a also faces an on-off Shi'ite revolt in the north that has dragged in Saudi Arabia and a secessionist movement in southern Yemen.

Dubai police announced on Thursday they had foiled a bid to smuggle 16 000 pistols from Turkey to Yemen's northern province of Saada, the stronghold of the Shi'ite Zaidi rebels.

In the southern city of Aden, meanwhile, a policeman was killed and seven others were wounded in a roadside bombing which targeted their patrol, a security official said.

Source: AFP

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