Thursday, August 11, 2011

Saleh’s recovery spurs Yemen peace quest

By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

Efforts to end Yemen’s political standoff have intensified following the release from a Saudi hospital of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was wounded in a June attack.

Fears have grown that Mr Saleh’s promised return to Sana’a could heighten tensions in the capital.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Yemen earlier this year, calling for the president’s departure. He was taken to neighbouring Saudi Arabia for emergency treatment after being injured in an attack on his palace in Sana’a.

He left hospital last weekend and remains in Riyadh.

In recent days, speculation has risen that he has been pressured by the US to remain in Saudi Arabia to facilitate a transfer of power. Officials in Sana’a have insisted he will return to Yemen.

Mr Saleh initially agreed to transfer power to Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, his vice-president, in May, but then backed out of the plan devised by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), triggering an outbreak of violence in the capital.

His lead negotiator has been shuttling between Riyadh and Sana’a since early August.

This week, Mr Saleh met some of his top officials. “He agreed with them to explore ways of restarting the GCC initiative and of creating a mechanism that will ensure a peaceful transfer of power,” a ruling party official told Reuters news agency.

Under the latest plan, elections would be held at the end of the year, according to a western diplomat in Sana’a. The previous plan, brokered by Gulf Arab countries, called for Mr Saleh to transfer power to the vice-president within 30 days of an agreement being signed. A new government would then call elections within 60 days. It is not clear whether Mr Saleh would return to Yemen or not under the agreement currently being discussed.

Officially, the opposition parties are seeking to form a national council of the revolution to intensify the uprising. But diplomats and analysts say the opposition has few options other than try to negotiate a plan for the transfer of power with the ruling party.

Protesters continue to gather in squares across the country. But fuel shortages and rising prices are taking their toll on the movement.

“I wasn’t able to go to the square every day because a taxi costs four or five times more than it used to,” said one protester. “I’m really surprised that many people are still going.”

Fears persist that Yemen will slip into civil war if the stalemate continues.

The army has been divided since a leading commander declared his support for the protest movement in March. Both sides of the divided army are de­ployed on Sana’a’s streets, where residents have reported a build-up of military equipment. Sporadic fighting has flared between the country’s heavily armed tribes and security forces.

Opposition politicians are expected to be wary of any agreement with Mr Saleh.

A master of tactical evasion, he has survived six months of popular protests, the defection of a substantial part of his military and numerous ambassadors, calls from his former allies in Washington for him to transfer power, and an apparent assassination attempt – while backing down three times on a deal to transfer power.

“Even though he has played so many people before, there is no choice but to believe him,” said Abdulghani Eryani, a Sana’a-based analyst.

“The only other option is civil war.”

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