Thousands of anti-government protesters held their ground yesterday in the Yemeni capital’s Change Square despite the president’s acceptance of an Arab proposal to leave office under certain conditions after 32 years in power.
More than two months of protests pressing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down have left him clinging to power and brought intense international pressure for him to leave office. A bloc of Gulf nations has been trying to broker an end to the crisis, fearing the potential impact of more instability in the fragile country, which is home to al-Qaida’s most active branch.
Saleh agreed to the proposal for him to hand power to his vice president within 30 days of a deal being signed in exchange for immunity from prosecution for him and his sons.
A coalition of seven opposition political parties also agreed to the proposal with several reservations. But they do not control the streets, where key figures among a diverse range of other government opponents rejected the proposal and said they doubted Saleh had any intention to leave.
Thousands of protesters held onto their camp in Change Square in the capital, Sanaa, where they are ringed by military units that defected to join and protect them.
“The proposals are not acceptable at all and the opposition parties don’t represent us,” said Khaled al-Ansi, a leader of the youth movement that is one of the main organisers of the street protests.
Al-Ansi said Saleh was “behind everything that is happening and he should be tried together with his sons” for the heavy crackdown on protesters.
More than 130 people have been killed by security forces and Saleh supporters since the unrest began in early February. At least 40 were killed in a single attack on March 18 by rooftop snipers overlooking Change Square.
Days later, a wave of defections by those outraged at the violence picked up pace. Top military commanders, diplomats, ruling party members and even Saleh’s own tribe have abandoned him.
Saleh had offered to step down by the end of the year. When that failed to ease the unrest, he insisted he would stay until the end of his term in 2013. Seeking to ease the international pressure on him, he said the country would slide into chaos and al-Qaida would seize control if he left early.
The Gulf mediators’ proposal calls for the opposition to join Saleh in a national unity government within days of signing a deal.
The seven legal opposition parties say they want to see Saleh leave office before any talks on joining a unity government.
The United States is concerned at losing Saleh who has sought to curb al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and is urging a swift transition of power.