Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gulf States launch bid to mediate in Yemen crisis

ABU DHABI, April 4, (Agencies): Gulf Arab states have invited Yemeni government and opposition representatives to talks in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait’s foreign minister said on Monday, in a bid to end the crisis after weeks of anti-government protest.

Sheikh Mohammad al-Salem al-Sabah told Reuters the offer was extended after a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Sunday.

“After Riyadh, on the GCC level, we have decided to invite both the (Yemen) government and opposition representatives to Riyadh to resolve the impasse on some specific issues,” he said, declining to provide further details.

“The GCC is talking to both sides but no date has been set.”

Police and armed men in civilian clothes opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in the Yemeni cities of Taiz and Hudaida on Monday, as a drive to end President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule gathered pace.

The Gulf Cooperation Council is a political and economic bloc made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

The GCC ministers voiced concern on Sunday over the “deterioration of the security situation and the division in Yemen” and called for a dialogue.

Meanwhile, the US government is dropping its support for Yemen’s embattled president and is helping negotiate his departure, the New York Times reported Sunday, citing US and Yemeni officials.

Washington has long supported President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, and the administration of President Barack Obama has largely refrained from criticizing him in public.

But US officials have told allies that they see Saleh’s position as untenable due to the widespread protests, and believe he should leave office.

Negotiations over Saleh’s departure began more than a week ago, the newspaper reports.

The talks center on a proposal for Saleh to surrender power to a provisional government under his vice-president until there can be new elections. That principle “is not in dispute,” an unnamed Yemeni official told the US newspaper, but the timing has to be worked out.

Washington’s goal is for the US conterterrorism operation in Yemen to remain unaffected, the Times reported.

The ongoing clashes between Saleh and the protesters “has had a direct adverse impact on the security situation throughout the country,” an unnamed US official told the Times.

“Groups of various stripes — al-Qaeda, Houthis, tribal elements, and secessionists — are exploiting the current political turbulence and emerging fissures within the military and security services for their own gain,,” the official told the newspaper.

“Until President Saleh is able to resolve the current political impasse by announcing how and when he will follow through on his earlier commitment to take tangible steps to meet opposition demands, the security situation in Yemen is at risk of further deterioration,” the US official said.

In Sanaa, Yemeni security forces shot dead 17 anti-regime demonstrators and wounded scores more on Monday, on the second day of lethal clashes in Taez, south of the capital, medics said.

“The death toll has gone up to 17, in addition to dozens wounded,” said Sadeq al-Shujaa, head of a makeshift field hospital at a square in central Taez, updating an earlier casualty toll.

The bloodshed came as demonstrators staged a march on the governorate headquarters in the city about 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the capital to demand the ouster of Yemen’s embattled President Saleh.

Witnesses said the demonstrators stormed the courtyard of the governorate and that plainclothes gunmen and rooftop snipers opened fire in an attempt to push them back.

The bloodshed, a day after another protester was shot dead in Taez, sent the death toll to more than 100 in a crackdown on protests in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state since late January.

In the western city of Hudaydah, witnesses said dozens of people were wounded by police gunfire and rocks in clashes on Monday, while hundreds of others needed treatment for tear-gas inhalation.

Thirteen people were shot and wounded in Hudaydah late on Sunday, witnesses said, as police clashed with thousands of demonstrators marching on the Red Sea city’s main local government building.

Thirteen were wounded by live bullets, another 30 from injuries sustained by batons and stones, and 400 others suffering tear-gas inhalation, according to witness accounts.

The demonstrations in Taez and Hudaydah, 150 kilometres (100 miles) from Sanaa, form part of a renewed spurt of protests for Saleh to end his three-decade rule.

The Common Forum, an opposition coalition, on Saturday called on Saleh to hand power to Vice-President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi in a new “vision for a peaceful and secure transition of power”.

But the embattled president, a key US ally in Washington’s war on al-Qaeda, told the opposition to end protests and remove roadblocks, offering a “peaceful transition of power through constitutional ways”.

Youths staging sit-in protests, however, said they would accept nothing short of an end to Saleh’s autocratic rule along with the departure of top figures in his regime.

Mustafa al-Sabri, a spokesman for a coalition of opposition parties, said US and European diplomats who had been in contacts with Saleh had asked the opposition for their “vision” for a transition. In response, the opposition over the weekend gave the Americans a proposal that Saleh step down and hand his powers to his vice president, who would then organize a process for rewriting the constitution and holding new elections, al-Sabri said.

But the 65-year-old president has dug in against the idea.

On Sunday, Saleh took a tough line, saying no negotiations could be held without a “halt to all protests and the mutiny by some units in the military.”

“We are prepared to explore the peaceful transfer of authority in the framework of the constitution. But arm-twisting will absolutely not work,” he said.

He spoke Monday to a gathering of pro-government tribesmen, vowing, “We are standing firm, and we will defend constitutional legitimacy by all means. We will stand as firm as mountains and will remain faithful to the people.”

Meanwhile, the White House Monday warned that al-Qaeda could take advantage of a power vacuum in Yemen and said a timetable for transferring power from President Saleh should begin.

“We are obviously concerned that in this period of political unrest that al-Qaeda and other groups will attempt to take advantage of that power vacuum,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

“That is one of the reasons why we urge political dialogue to take place and a timetable for this transition that President Saleh has talked about to be begun,” Carney said.

Yemen has been a vital US partner in cracking down on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been blamed for several thwarted attacks directed at the US mainland.

“We believe we can and will work with the government of Yemen on these important matters,” Carney said, but significantly did not lock US cooperation onto Saleh.

“We are not focused on one individual,” he said.

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