Friday, April 15, 2011

Yemen's Saleh calls for talks as protests escalate

Mohammed Ghobari and Mohamed Sudam

April 15, 2011

SANAA (Reuters) - Opponents of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped up a campaign to force him out on Friday, but Saleh was defiant as he addressed thousands of supporters and called on the opposition to join talks.

"We call on the opposition to consult their consciences and come to dialogue and reach an agreement for security and stability of the country," Saleh said.

"These crowds are a clear message to those inside and outside the country ... on constitutional legitimacy."

Saleh was capitalizing on the opposition's rejection of a Gulf Arab offer to mediate talks in Riyadh on a transfer of power in the Arabian peninsula state, fearing a trick to keep Saleh in office for any time up to the end of his term in 2013.

Saleh spoke as hundreds of thousands protested against him in Sanaa, Aden and Taiz, tribesmen attacked a power plant and clerics and tribal leaders who were once his allies issued a statement saying he must go now.

"It's only a matter of days before this regime is over. This revolution cannot be defeated. Our aim to bring down corrupt family rule," preacher Abubakr Obaid told thousands of worshippers near Sanaa University, where protesters have been camped out since early February.

Activists distributed leaflets calling on people to stop paying taxes, electricity and other bills to the government in a campaign of civil disobedience to force Saleh out. Strikes in schools and government offices began in the southern city of Aden last week.

Electricity supply was hit in cities including Sanaa, Taiz, Hudaida and Ibb after tribesmen attacked a main power plant, an official said, accusing them of acting on behalf of opposition parties.

Seven protesters were hurt in Taiz when Saleh loyalists opened fire on some of tens of thousands who took to the streets after Friday prayers, witnesses said.

Clerics and tribal chiefs called in their statement for "the dismissal of all his relatives from the military and security apparatus of the state."

Diplomatic sources say talks in recent weeks on resolving the crisis have stalled over Saleh's desire for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family.

A Gulf Arab peace initiative announced this week appeared to give Saleh this, and he accepted the plan the next day.

The statement from the clerics and tribal chiefs stated their "rejection of giving any assurances concerning the bloodletting." At least 116 people have died in protests which security forces have attacked with live fire and tear gas.

Tunisian and Egyptian leaders and their families, brought down in popular uprisings this year, are facing legal action over corruption and the deaths of protesters.


In his short speech to supporters, Saleh called the opposition liars and "bandits" who block roads, and made an appeal to religious sensitivities when he said they should stop the mixing of unrelated men and women among Sanaa protesters.

"I call on them to prevent mixing that is against Islamic sharia law outside Sanaa University," he said.

The loyalists raised banners with slogans such as "the people want Ali Abdullah Saleh."

"The opposition are bandits and saboteurs. They refuse dialogue because they want to take power by coup not by ballot box," said pro-Saleh protester Farid Toshi.

The opposition coalition, which includes the Islamist Islah party, said on Thursday it wanted Saleh to leave office within two weeks.

"We have renewed our emphasis on the need for speeding the process of (Saleh) standing down to within two weeks. Therefore we will not go to Riyadh," said Mohammed al-Mutawakkil, a prominent opposition leader.

Saudi and Western allies of Yemen fear that a prolonged standoff in Yemen, where Saleh has faced two months of protests demanding his overthrow, could ignite clashes between rival military units and cause chaos that would benefit an active al Qaeda wing operating in the poor, mountainous country.

Mutawakkil, however, said the opposition could reach an agreement on granting assurances against prosecution, leaving the timing of a transfer as the major holdup.

Saleh has warned of civil war and the break-up of Yemen if he is forced to step aside before organizing parliamentary and presidential elections over the next year.

Saleh has offered new parliamentary and presidential elections this year as part of political reforms, but says he should stay in power to oversee the change or hand over to what he calls "safe hands."

Even before the start of the protests, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and cement a truce with Shi'ite Muslim rebels in the north.

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