By Donna Abu-Nasr
(Updates with child casualties in 10th paragraph. See EXTRA and MET for more on the regional unrest.)
April 20 (Bloomberg) -- Discussions to end a political crisis in Yemen are centered around a plan that would have President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down within 30 days of it being announced and guarantee immunity for him, his family and long-time aides, a Yemeni official said.
Under the so-called 30 + 60 plan, Saleh would transfer his powers to a deputy and elections would be held 60 days after that, according to Ahmed al-Soufi, secretary general for the Yemeni Institute for the Development of Democracy and a media affairs adviser in the presidential palace.
The threat is that an escalation of the standoff may lead to more violence in the country, or a deadly military divide such as the one in Libya. At the same time, rising social unrest may strengthen al-Qaeda as it seeks to use Yemen, the poorest Arab nation, as a base from which to destabilize neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude.
A weak central government in Yemen risks mirroring the situation in Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden, where there hasn’t been a functioning administration since 1991. Somalia has become a breeding ground for pirates who attack shipping lanes.
There have been no public comments on the plan from Saleh or opposition leaders. Al-Soufi said officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, will travel to Yemen next week to facilitate negotiations.
Al-Soufi said one option that supporters of the president have put forward is for Saleh to oversee the process to hold elections. “He would be the father of this democratic process,” he said in a telephone interview from Sana’a, the capital.
Protests in Yemen calling for an end to Saleh’s rule are in their third month.
Under Yemen’s state of emergency, the first since a 1994 civil war between the north and south, public gatherings are banned, the media is subject to restrictions, and the constitution suspended.
The U.S. has backed Saleh, a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, with $300 million a year of military and economic aid.
A total of 109 protesters have been killed since Feb. 11, according to Majed al-Madhaji, a spokesman at the Arabic Sisters Forum for Human Rights in Sana’a. Unicef, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, said at least 26 children have been killed since early February, according to a statement released today.
Dozens of lawmakers abandoned Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress to protest the violence, joining a list of defectors that includes Cabinet ministers, diplomats, tribal leaders and senior military officers such as Ali Muhsin al- Ahmar, commander of the First Armored Division.
Yemen’s conflict with Shiite Muslim Houthis in the north of the nation has in the past drawn in Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim-led monarchy that last month sent troops to help suppress a Shiite-led uprising in another neighbor, Bahrain.