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Yemen peace deal falters

President Ali Abdullah Saleh refuses to sign the accord for him to step down with immunity, and a regional council says it is ceasing efforts for a deal. Saleh backers besiege an embassy where envoys had gathered to witness the signing.

May 23, 2011|By Iona Craig, Los Angeles Times
  • Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, third from right, stands with U.S. Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein, right, as members of the ruling party sign the accord. Saleh himself refused, saying he would only do so if opposition leaders can and signed the deal in front of him.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, third from right, stands with U.S.… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Sana, Yemen — Hundreds of armed supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh trapped Western and gulf diplomats inside an embassy in the capital for hours Sunday to prevent them from brokering a deal for the longtime leader to step down within a month.

Government loyalists took to the streets of Sana, bringing the city to a standstill in what appeared to be an organized campaign by Saleh's beleaguered regime.

Antigovernment activists alleged that at least one demonstrator near the airport was killed by Saleh loyalists. The allegation could not be independently verified.

An angry pro-Saleh mob of at least 200, armed with AK-47 rifles and traditional daggers, blocked the road leading to the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Sana. They were furious at attempts to persuade Saleh to sign the deal, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and signed privately by opposition leaders Saturday.

"We reject the coup attempt by the GCC," the Saleh supporters chanted.

Early Monday, in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency, the gulf council said it was dropping its efforts "for lack of appropriate circumstances for agreement."

Trapped inside the embassy Sunday were U.S. Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein, British counterpart Jonathan Wilks, GCC envoy Abdullatif bin Rashid Zayani and representatives of the European Union, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, witnesses said. They had gathered at the embassy to witness Saleh sign the agreement.

Sunday evening, Yemeni military helicopters could be seen landing at the embassy and taking diplomats to the presidential palace. Feierstein left by car, according to a U.S. Embassy official.

Yemeni state television later showed Feierstein and other diplomats watching Saleh stand by at the palace as ruling party officials signed the GCC agreement. Saleh said afterward he would not sign the agreement unless opposition leaders came and signed in public.

"If they don't comply, they are dragging us to a civil war, and they will have to hold responsibility for the bloodshed in the past and the blood that will be spilled later on because of their stupidity," Saleh warned on state TV.

The day before, Saleh had promised that he would sign the accord Sunday. But at the same time, he had condemned the deal as a "coup" and warned that if he left power, an Al Qaeda offshoot active in the country would fill the void.

The agreement, two months in the making, would allow Saleh to step down within a month with immunity from prosecution, handing power over to his vice president and a transitional government. Elections would be held in three months.

Saleh, who has ruled for 32 years, has resisted stepping down despite three months of unrest, and although he appeared ready to sign the deal, he had demurred at least twice before.

Dozens of Saleh supporters gathered Sunday in front of the police academy, where members of the ruling party had come to discuss the GCC deal, and others blocked the road in front of the presidential palace, chanting, "We will not permit the president's ouster." Other loyalists demonstrated outside foreign embassies, attacking the Chinese ambassador's convoy.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of antigovernment protesters demonstrated in a central square that has become the hub of opposition rallies, waving Yemeni flags and banners reading, "Now, now Ali, down with the president!" and "Go out Ali!" and shouting their opposition to the deal.

As night fell, flames and smoke from burning tires filled the sky.

Craig is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo contributed to this report.

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