Thursday, June 9, 2011

Yemeni activists press government to abandon Saleh

By Sudarsan Raghavan, Updated: Wednesday, June 8,

SANAA, Yemen — Youth and human rights activist leaders, who spearheaded Yemen’s populist rebellion, said Wednesday that they intend to launch their own transitional presidential council if the government refuses to abandon President Ali Abdullah Saleh and pave the way for a transition of power.

The ultimatum underscored the sense of urgency and frustrations among the activists. They fear that, even with Saleh outside Yemen, they could lose the gains they have achieved so far and that his government could continue to rule in his absence.

“The only reason we are calling for the formation of a presidential council is because we feel the political powers have failed to take advantage of this historical moment when the president has left,” Tawakkol Karman, a prominent activist, told reporters, referring to Saleh’s loyalists. “So we have taken the initiative.”

While the creation of a shadow transitional council, if it happens, is unlikely to alter the power dynamics inside Yemen, it would send a clear signal that many of the youth and human rights activists who launched the rebellion are unhappy with current efforts by the political opposition and the international community to create a post-Saleh Yemen.

The other major players in Yemen have largely stayed out of the political fray, although they remain influential. Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s closest ally before he defected in March, has kept out of the public eye. But his troops continue to guard the protesters at Change Square, where tens of thousands have camped out for months.

The tribal militias linked to the Ahmar family remain in control of some areas, including the Hasaba district in northern Sanaa, home to the family’s residences. The Ahmars have long played a significant role in Yemen and are among the country’s wealthiest citizens. One son, Hamid, a business tycoon, is a top leader in the political opposition who is widely viewed as a potential successor to Saleh.

In the south, Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, have taken advantage of the turmoil. They have taken over areas in Abyan province, an al-Qaeda stronghold, including the southern city of Zinjibar. But al-Qaeda has not weighed in vocally in the political arena.

The drive to oust Saleh took on a new sense of urgency amid reports Tuesday that the injuries he sustained in an attack on his palace last week were more severe than previously stated.

A U.S. official said that Saleh, who left Yemen on Saturday to seek medical care in Saudi Arabia, “sustained significant burn injuries and shrapnel wounds.”

In the streets of this tense capital, many youth activists see a greater opportunity to push through the democratic reforms they have fought for since launching a populist uprising in February. But Saleh’s supporters dismissed reports of his condition as exaggerated and appeared intent on demonstrating that without him, Yemen will remain engulfed in chaos.

On Wednesday, a Saudi-brokered truce continued to show signs of holding firm. Tribal fighters allied with the Ahmar family, who engaged in fierce clashes with government forces over two weeks, pulled out of several government buildings Tuesday night, including ministries they had taken over, according to Abdulqawi al-Qaisi, a spokesman for the family.

More than 15 rotting bodies of tribal fighters and soldiers as well as civilians from recent fighting were recovered Wednesday from the Hasaba neighborhood, witnesses said. They said the bodies were found in the area surrounding the Hasaba police station and near the house of Sadiq al-Ahmar, where fierce fighting between the government troops and Ahmar tribal supporters took place and had prevented the removal of the bodies. A spokesman at the Ahmar office said 10 of the dead were tribal fighters.

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