Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh may face nationwide protests today as his return to the country after more than three months abroad and calls for negotiations were rejected by the opposition.
Opposition leaders called on followers to mark today’s national holiday commemorating a 1962 uprising that ended the monarchy with demonstrations against Saleh, who has ruled the Arab world’s poorest country for more than three decades. Protesters took to the streets following a night of heavy shelling, calling for a “new revolution” to take place.
“Our protests will escalate and we are confident we will win,” said Tawakul Karaman, the head of Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based human rights organization. “We will arrest him and bring him to court.”
Violence in Yemen threatens to mirror the situation across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, which has been mired in a civil war for two decades and hasn’t had a functioning central government since 1991. At least 150 people have been killed in two weeks of fighting. Saleh returned to Yemen on Sept. 24 from Saudi Arabia, where he was receiving treatment.
Saleh’s government has said rising social unrest threatens to strengthen al-Qaeda, a concern also expressed by the U.S. The group has sought to use Yemen as a base from which to destabilize neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, and for attempted attacks on international targets including two U.S. synagogues last year.
Saleh called late yesterday for parliamentary and presidential elections on the basis of an accord proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council. The regional GCC bloc includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
“We have talked repeatedly about the peaceful transfer of power through the ballot boxes,” Saleh said in a televised address on the eve of Yemen’s Revolution Day. “We are committed to the Gulf initiative and to implementing it.”
Protests have persisted since the government and the main opposition group, the Joint Meetings Parties, failed three times to sign the plan. Under the terms of the proposal, Saleh would cede power within a month of signing the deal and be granted immunity from prosecution. A transition would follow within 60 days.
Violence in the capital erupted the last time the talks collapsed. The president left for Saudi Arabia on June 5 for medical treatment after being wounded by a rocket that slammed into the mosque in his presidential compound. Sixteen people were killed in the attack and more than 100 wounded.
Saleh’s latest offer is an attempt to “avoid more international pressure, Karaman said in a telephone interview. “We are fed up with his cunning tactics.”
Saleh said he supported the “legitimate demands” of political parties and Yemeni youth, adding that some groups are committing “crimes” to seize power and wealth.
Government forces opened fire earlier yesterday on tens of thousands of protesters, wounding 17, three of whom are in critical condition, said Mohammed Qubatai, a doctor at the field clinic at the protest camp dubbed Change Square. Al Jazeera later said that four people were killed.
Armed tribesmen from Yemen’s Nihm region north of Sana’a have taken control of a military camp from the elite Republican Guard, Naji al-Nihmi, a tribal leader, said in a telephone interview. At least six tribesmen were killed and 28 others wounded in clashes between the two groups, al-Nihmi said.
The demonstrations, which were inspired by revolts that ousted the leaders of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, deepened as military and tribal leaders joined the opposition.
“We will not stop protests till this rotten regime is gone,” said Mohamed Hadian, a protester marching in Sana’a today.
Yemeni authorities “appeared to have lost effective control of parts of the country and within the major cities,” the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report. It warned that Yemen faced civil war.
Saleh became leader of North Yemen in 1978 and has ruled the Republic of Yemen since the north and south merged in 1990. He has repeatedly said that his immediate departure could lead to chaos and a four-way split of the country.
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