By Associated Press, Updated: Thursday, November 24, 2011
SANAA, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s agreement to step down failed to halt anti-government demonstrations or prevent violence Thursday as regime supporters killed five protesters demanding that the ousted leader be put on trial for crimes ranging from corruption to bloodshed during the current uprising.
Saleh signed the U.S.-backed power-transfer deal, brokered by neighboring countries, Wednesday in the Saudi capital Riyadh in exchange for immunity from prosecution. It sets in motion a number of changes designed to stop the uprising that has battered Yemen’s economy and caused a nationwide security lapse that al-Qaida linked militants have exploited to step up operations.
Saleh passed his presidential duties to his vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, effectively ending his 33-year rule. If the deal holds, he’ll be the fourth leader to lose power in the wave of Arab Spring uprisings this year, following longtime dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In the coming days, the opposition is supposed to name a prime minister, who will be sworn in by Hadi. The prime minister will then form a national unity government, evenly divided between the opposition and the ruling party. Hadi also is to announce a date for presidential elections, to be held within 90 days.
Observers note that the deal does not include a number of Yemen’s biggest power brokers, including Saleh’s relatives who head elite security forces, powerful tribal chiefs and military commanders who have joined the protesters.
Many of the protesters, who have camped out in public square for months to call for sweeping democratic reforms, rejected the deal immediately, saying the opposition parties that agreed to it were compromised by their long association with Saleh.
Thousands took to the streets again Thursday in the capital Sanaa, the central city of Taiz and elsewhere, protesting the deal and calling for Saleh to be tried for charges of corruption and for the killing of protesters during the uprising.
They chanted “No immunity for the killer” and vowed to continue their protests.
Security forces and government supporters opened fire on Sanaa’s main protest camp Thursday, killing five protesters with live ammunition, said Gameela Abdullah, a medic at the local field hospital.
A video posted online by activists showed men in long robes and Arab head scarves firing assault rifles at protesters, who scramble for cover. Some throw rocks and carrying large pictures of Saleh.
“We’ll keep fighting until Saleh is tried for all the crimes he has committed against the people in his capacity as the head of the armed forces,” said activist Bushra al-Maqtari in Taiz, which has seen some of the most violent crackdowns on anti-regime protesters. Hundreds of demonstrators have been killed nationwide since January.
Abdullah Obal, a leader in the coalition that signed the deal, said the opposition intended to meet with protest leaders to address their demands.
“The agreement does not cancel the youth’s demands or go against them,” he said. “It is their right to protest.”
Some doubt that the deal marks the end of political life for Saleh, who has proved to be a wily politician and suggested in remarks after the signing ceremony that he could play a future political role in the country, along with his ruling party. He had agreed to sign the deal three times before, only to back away at the last minute.
Saleh had stubbornly clung to power despite nearly 10 months of huge street protests in which hundreds of people were killed by his security forces. At one point, Saleh’s palace mosque was bombed and he was treated in Saudi Arabia for severe burns.
“The signature is not what is important,” Saleh said after signing the agreement. “What is important is good intentions and dedication to serious, loyal work at true participation to rebuild what has been destroyed by the crisis during the last 10 months.”
International leaders who had long pushed for the deal applauded Saleh’s signature, many hoping it would help end a security breakdown that has allowed Yemen’s active al-Qaida branch to step up operations in the country’s weakly governed provinces.
President Barack Obama welcomed the decision, saying the U.S. would stand by the Yemeni people “as they embark on this historic transition.”
King Abdullah also praised Saleh, telling Yemenis the plan would “open a new page in your history” and lead to greater freedom and prosperity.
Italy’s foreign minister, Giulio Terzi, lauded the agreement and called for an end to violence.
“Now it is necessary that the accord is fully implemented and that all violence cease,” he said.