Friday, March 25, 2011

Yemeni president faces fewer options

Ali Abdullah Saleh has already offered to stand down next year as tensions grow before a rally planned for Friday

Sana'a, Mar 25, 2011- Yemen's opposition has stepped up efforts to remove President Ali Abdullah Saleh, dismissing his offer to stand down after a presidential election at the end of the year.

Tensions grew before a planned rally which protesters have dubbed "Friday of Departure". Presidential guards loyal to Saleh clashed with army units backing opposition groups.

Yassin Noman, head of Yemen's opposition coalition, dismissed Saleh's offer to stand down as "empty words", and a spokesman said the umbrella coalition would not respond.

"No dialogue and no initiatives for this dead regime," opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabry said.

General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who sent troops to protect pro-democracy protesters in the capital, Sana'a, said Saleh's options were now few and criticised his "stubbornness", but said the armed forces were committed to protecting protesters.

He said military rule in Arab countries was outdated and that the people would decide who would govern them in the framework of a modern, civilian state. He also refuted the notion that he sought power for himself. "Ali Mohsen as an individual has served for 55 years and has no desire for any power or position," he said. "I have no more ambition left except to spend the remainder of my life in tranquillity, peace and relaxation far from the problems of politics and the demands of the job."

Ali Mohsen, commander of the north-west military zone and Saleh's kinsman from the al-Ahmar clan, is the most senior military officer to back the protests. His move on Monday triggered a stream of defections in the military and government.

Saleh reacted to the loss of his ally, seen as Yemen's second most powerful figure, with a series of meetings with military and tribal leaders in which he warned against a "coup" that would lead to civil war.

Saleh also has intelligence services on his side and security sources say he has beefed up his personal security for fear of an assassination attempt.

Protesters who have been encamped in their thousands outside Sana'a University for some six weeks have hardened in their attitude towards Saleh, rejecting any idea of his remaining.

They hope the "Day of Departure" after Friday prayers could bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets.

Around 10,000 people gathered on Thursday morning, chanting slogans such as "Go, go, you coward; you are an American agent".

Protesters are divided over what they think of Mohsen, an Islamist from the same Hashed tribal confederation as Saleh.

"The country risks replacing the current regime with one bearing striking similarities, dominated by tribal elites from Hashed and powerful Islamists," the ICG report said.

The general, seen as close to the Islamist opposition, said the army would work with the international community against terrorism.

Yemen lies on key shipping routes and borders Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaida has used Yemen as a base to plot attacks in both Saudi Arabia and the United States, and both countries have long seen Saleh as a bulwark against a resurgent Yemen-based al-Qaida network.

The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said Washington had not planned for an era without Saleh. Western countries and Saudi Arabia are concerned that if Saleh steps down a power vacuum might ensue that could embolden al-Qaida.

With no clear successor and with conflicts gripping northern and southern Yemen, the country of 23 million faces fears of a breakup, in addition to poverty, a water shortage, dwindling oil reserves and lack of central government control.

Northern Shias have taken up arms against Saleh, and southerners dream of a separate state.

Britain said it had drawn up plans for a possible military evacuation of its citizens who remain in Yemen. "There are very detailed contingency plans, at very short notice to go into operation, for the evacuation of those British nationals that remain," Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

"But that would have to be, if we have to trigger that, a military-only evacuation, possibly in very difficult circumstances, so it would be difficult to be assured that we would be able to bring out everybody from remote parts of Yemen," he told parliament.

Hague said he had reports that oil companies were withdrawing their staff. Britain said on Wednesday it was temporarily withdrawing part of its embassy team from the capital Sana'a before protests expected on Friday.

Saleh and opposition groups have both made proposals for reform. On Wednesday, Saleh offered new presidential elections by January 2012 instead of September 2013, when his term ends.

An umbrella group of civil society organisations called for a transitional council of nine figures – "not involved with the corruption of the old regime" – to draw up a new constitution over a six-month period before elections.

But the issue of what happens to Saleh, who came power in the north in 1978 and oversaw unity with the south in 1990, was left untouched in the proposal from the "Civil Bloc".

"The political tide in Yemen has turned decisively against President Ali Abdullah Saleh," an International Crisis Group report said. "His choices are limited: he can fight his own military or negotiate a rapid and dignified transfer of power."

Source: Reuters

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