By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA, Apr 27, 2011 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Yemenis stepped up protests Wednesday by blocking access to a key port as Gulf mediators appeared close to sealing a deal for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to cede power.
The protesters distrust the Gulf Cooperation Council's plan, supported by the government and the main opposition group, because it gives Saleh a month-long window to resign and grants him and his family immunity from prosecution.
"The people want a departure, not an initiative," the protesters shouted outside the Red Sea port of Hudaida, where maritime operations continued unaffected.
Clashes flared in south Yemen between security forces and anti-government protesters who blocked roads with burning tires. One protester and a soldier were killed, hospital and local officials said. Earlier reports put the toll at two soldiers.
The deal aimed at ending Yemen's political standoff was expected to be signed Sunday in Riyadh, three months after Yemenis first took to the streets to demand Saleh's ouster, inspired by revolts that toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia.
The balance of power has tipped against Saleh, who has been a key ally of the West against al Qaeda, after weeks of violence, military defections and political reversals.
In Hudaida, protest organizer Abdul Hafez Muajeb said the coastguard had welcomed demonstrators and had raised a banner saying they would not use weapons against the people.
"We will close the port because its revenues are used to fund the thugs," said protester Muaz Abdullah, referring to plainclothes security men who often use daggers and bats to break up protests.
The large turnout at protests show the ability of the mostly young protesters, including students, tribesmen and activists, to act as potential spoilers of the Gulf deal. They have vowed to stay in the streets until their demands are met.
It is also not clear that opposition parties, comprised of Islamists, Arab nationalists and leftists who have been in and out of government in recent years, could halt the protests even if required to by the transition agreement.
Washington and neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia want the standoff resolved. They fear a descent into more bloodshed in the Arabian Peninsula state would offer more room for a Yemen-based al Qaeda wing to operate.
The Gulf deal provides for Saleh to appoint a prime minister from the opposition, who would then form a transition government ahead of a presidential election two months after his resignation. But the one-month window for Saleh to resign has sparked fears it may offer time for potential sabotage.
Mohammed Basindwa, a senior opposition leader regarded as a top candidate to lead a transition government, said he expected a deal to be signed without further negotiations, and said Saleh was not expected to attend the Riyadh meeting.
Saleh, who has ruled for 32 years, would sign the agreement in Sanaa while the opposition would sign in Riyadh in the presence of a government delegation, Basindwa said.
Asked if he was confident Saleh would step down after the 30-day window, Basindwa said: "The United States and the European Union and Gulf states guaranteed that all sides will stick to implementing the agreement."
Other clashes erupted in the main southern city of Aden when young protesters tried to enforce a general strike that has paralyzed the port city as most businesses and schools closed, a local government official said.
Strikes were also under way in Taiz, which has seen some of the largest anti-Saleh protests, and in Ibb, south of Sanaa.
Elsewhere in the south, gunmen shot dead two more soldiers and wounded five in an attack on a military checkpoint that was blamed on al Qaeda loyalists, a local official said.
Around 130 protesters have been killed as unrest swept Yemen, where some 40 percent of its 23 million people live on $2 a day or less, and a third face chronic hunger.