Thursday, December 1, 2011

Yemen’s turmoil

Has he really gone?
No one is betting yet on President Ali Abdullah Saleh actually ceding power
Dec 3rd 2011 | CAIRO | from the print edition
CELEBRATORY fireworks and gunfire lit up the skies across Yemen on November 23rd, after Ali Abdullah Saleh, the mountainous country’s president for the past 33 years, signed an agreement in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to surrender power to a caretaker government. Yet happiness at Mr Saleh’s apparent exit was so tempered with other worries that the joy was painfully fleeting. Indeed, few are certain that Mr Saleh, famed for his guile, is sincere in promising to bow out for good.
According to the agreement, first proposed by Yemen’s rich neighbours in the Gulf Co-operation Council back in May, the 67-year-old leader retains the honorary title of president while transferring responsibilities to his longstanding vice-president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The self-effacing Mr Hadi has vowed to be inclusive, and took an encouraging first step by choosing Muhammad Basindwa, a respected opposition politician from Yemen’s restive south, to form a national unity cabinet. Mr Hadi also set a date, February 21st, for presidential elections.
Yet Mr Saleh has found ways to signal his continuing influence. He had said he would fly from Riyadh to the United States to continue treatment for injuries he suffered in an assassination attempt in June. Instead, he returned to his palace in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. His family and allies still dominate the security forces, in particular elite army units and the air force. As if to underline that nothing has changed on the ground in the stand-off between his men and the mix of students, opposition parties, rebel tribes and defecting army brigades that have faced each other since January, loyalist forces continued to attack protesters, most recently in Yemen’s second biggest city, Taiz.
Aside from fearing that such clashes could erupt into full-scale civil war, Mr Saleh’s opponents are angry that the Riyadh agreement grants him and his family judicial immunity. The ruling clan is not only widely perceived as corrupt. It is also held responsible for killing and wounding hundreds of Yemenis during the recent protests. In any case, many protesters distrust the formal opposition, which has in the past formed cosy tactical alliances with Mr Saleh’s long-ruling General People’s Congress party. Hence the continuation of mass sit-ins such as the one that was attacked in Taiz on November 30th.
Whether Mr Saleh stays or goes, Yemen will continue to suffer other chronic and potentially explosive troubles. Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country; 43% of its 25m people are under 15, 74% under 30. Half are jobless. Water is running out. Even in Sana’a barely half the people are connected to water mains, which tend to come on stream only once or twice a week. Given the country’s precarious politics, foreign donors are likely to shy away from giving more aid.
Along the border with Saudi Arabia in the far north, a rebellion that has made 300,000 people homeless since 2004 still simmers. A rocket attack by Houthi rebels, who present themselves as champions of Yemen’s large Zaydi Shia community, killed some 24 students, many of them foreigners, at a religious school run by ultra-orthodox Sunnis near the town of Saada on November 29th. The Yemeni south, meanwhile, suffers the dual challenge of a strong separatist movement and intense activity by jihadists aligned to al-Qaeda.
One of Mr Saleh’s well-tested survival tactics was to stoke problems that only he had the key to resolve. Even with him gone, these hideous problems remain.

Yemen opposition says govt agreed, 10 killed in Taiz

SANAA Dec 1 (Reuters) - Yemen's opposition said it agreed the lineup of an interim government on Thursday with outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh's party, under a deal to end a struggle over his fate that has brought the country close to civil war.
However, progress on the deal crafted by Yemen's Gulf Arab neighbours showed no signs of ending the bloodshed that has stained 10 months of protests against Saleh. At least 10 civilians and government troops died overnight in the country's commercial capital, a hotbed of anti-Saleh demonstrations, residents and officials said.
The plan's sponsors hope it can reverse a slide toward chaos on the doorstep of the world's biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, and prevent al Qaeda's Yemeni branch from gaining a foothold near shipping routes through the Red Sea.
An official of the Joint Meeting Parties, a bloc of opposition parties that signed the power transfer plan in Riyadh, said they had settled on a division of cabinet seats between themselves and Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC).
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saleh's party would take portfolios including defence, foreign affairs and oil, while the opposition would get the interior, finance and education ministries.
The prospective government would lead the country to a presidential election that Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the vice president to whom Saleh has transferred his powers, has set for Feb. 21, 2012.
Opposition sources also said they had given Hadi a list of their choices for a military council tasked with running the army until a new president is elected. The list included former defence and interior ministers, and army commanders who turned on Saleh.
Under the Gulf initiative signed by Saleh, a body will be set up to restructure the armed forces. Saleh's son Ahmed commands the Republican Guard, one of the best equipped units.
A completed transfer of power would make Saleh the fourth Arab leader to be toppled following mass protests that have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East.
Any successor would face multiple, overlapping conflicts that have gained force during the political crisis, including rising separatist sentiment in the south, which fought a civil war with Saleh's north in 1994, and fighting with Islamists who have seized territory in the southern Abyan province.
In Taiz, about 200 km (120 miles) south of the capital Sanaa, at least 10 civilians and soldiers were killed, medical workers and security sources said.
Five civilians died in what residents said was shelling by government forces overnight in Taiz, a centre of protests ringed by troops loyal to Saleh as well as tribal forces and troops who back the protesters.
"We are living in an atmosphere of real war. We couldn't sleep from the intensity of the blasts. We came to the aid of five residents of the quarter whose house a shell landed on," resident Abdullah al-Sharaabi told Reuters by telephone.
A security official dismissed the reports of the shelling of residential areas as lies and said "armed elements" had attacked several security checkpoints in the city.
Gunmen allied with opposition parties killed five soldiers and wounded 15 others, a security source said.
Staff at al-Rawdah hospital said five civilians had been killed and several injured. A field hospital in Taiz also received 10 injured civilians.
"Saleh's forces, which are concentrated in various parts of the city, fired shells on al-Manakh and al-Hasab and Bir Basha districts and the shelling continued until the early hours of Thursday morning," said lawyer Tawfeeq al-Shaabi, an activist in the protest movement.
Protesters in Taiz and elsewhere have denounced the immunity from prosecution Saleh and relatives would enjoy under the power transfer deal.
Human Rights Watch said last week that up to 35 civilians had been killed in Taiz since a U.N. Security Council resolution in October that backed the call for a power transfer and condemned the crackdown on protesters.
The group said most of those civilians were killed by artillery fire from Yemeni government forces, and called on the U.N. Security Council to freeze the assets of top Yemeni officials and distance itself from any promises of immunity.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Yemen called for immediate access to conflict zones -- including one in the northern Saada province, where Shi'ite rebels who Saleh tried to crush are now fighting Sunni Islamists.
"The general humanitarian situation is dire," Eric Marclay told Reuters. "On one hand you have an agreement between the government and opposition parties but this does not translate immediately ... to an improvement in the ... humanitarian situation."

5 Killed as Yemeni Government Forces Shell Taiz

Sana'a, December 1, 2011 -Shells and mortar fire rained down on the Yemeni city of Taiz on Thursday, killing five people and wounding at least 20.
Residents of several Taiz neighborhoods said government forces launched the attack early in the day. Medical officials confirmed the death toll and said some of those wounded were in critical condition.
Taiz residents have been protesting for several months, pushing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Saleh and Yemen's main political parties agreed earlier this month to a Gulf-sponsored plan for transferring power to his vice president and holding an early presidential election.
Earlier this week, Saleh announced a general amnesty for all those who "committed errors" during the country's 10-month political crisis. Saleh said the only exception to the amnesty would be those involved in an apparent attempt to assassinate him back in June.
The Gulf-sponsored plan allows for Saleh to remain president in an honorary capacity until the February 21 presidential election.