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Thu 7 Apr 2011 01:29 PM

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Gulf Arabs work on plan for Yemen's Saleh to go

Plan willl guarantee the Yemeni president and his family immunity from prosecution, opposition says

Gulf Arabs work on plan for Yemen's Saleh to go
EMBATTLED LEADER Saleh stepped up rhetoric over the weekend, telling a crowd of supporters he would defend Yemen with "blood and soul" (Getty Images)

A Saudi and Gulf Arab plan for Yemen's president to step down and end a political crisis will guarantee the veteran leader and his family immunity from prosecution, an opposition source said on Thursday.

The US and Gulf Arab countries including Yemen's key financial backer, Saudi Arabia, now appear ready to push aside a long-time ally against Al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing to avoid a chaotic collapse of the poorest Arab state.

Saleh's at times violent response over the past two months to mass protests against his 32-year rule, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, has tried the patience of Washington and Riyadh, both of which have been the target of attempted attacks by Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch.

The Gulf proposal for talks in Riyadh was presented to Saleh and a coalition of opposition parties this week. Saleh welcomed it, and Gulf sources said it envisaged handing power to an interim council of tribal and political leaders who would help appoint a national unity government ahead of elections.

An opposition source said the proposal would give Saleh and his family, whose control over key posts has long irked Yemenis, immunity from prosecution for corruption.

The proposal would also see Saleh hand over power to a vice-president, the source said. Current incumbent Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has said he does not want such a role, which suggests Saleh would appoint a new figure.

"They informed the opposition that their vision is based on Saleh leaving power after handing authority to his deputy and then forming a national unity government that will prepare a new constitution ... and parliament elections," he said.

"The Gulf vision is also based on Saleh's proposal that both he and general Ali Mohsen ... leave Yemen, and the Gulf countries have committed to guarantees that Saleh and his family will not face prosecution after they leave," the source added.

Mohsen was one of a string of generals, diplomats and tribal leaders who turned against Saleh after snipers killed 52 protesters on March 18.

Though Mohsen's army wing is protecting protesters camped out in Sanaa, he is widely mistrusted as a kinsman of Saleh who was for years a loyal pillar of his rule.

Talks in recent weeks, which had included the US ambassador in Sanaa, had become bogged down over Saleh's demand for assurances that he and members of his family would not face prosecution -- a demand of the street activists, who may object to any deal the Gulf Arabs or the opposition come up with.

This week Washington began to shift its policy of public support for Saleh, who has rallied large numbers of supporters and insists he should stay until elections late this year.

Saleh stepped up rhetoric over the weekend, telling a crowd of supporters he would defend Yemen with "blood and soul".

Even before the wave of pro-democracy protests against his rule, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi'ite insurgency in the north.

Frustration with Saleh's intransigence may push Yemenis, many of them heavily armed and with experience of wars and insurgencies, closer to a violent power struggle that could give Al Qaeda's regional wing more room to operate.

All of these factors spark concern for stability in a country that sits on a shipping lane through which more than 3 million barrels of oil pass each day.

In the latest unrest, police shot and wounded two people during a demonstration against domestic gas shortages in the capital Sanaa late on Wednesday, witnesses said.

Tens of thousands protested in the central city of Taiz on Wednesday and security forces fired into the air to try to disperse them. No casualties were reported.

On Monday police and armed men in civilian clothes fired on marchers in Taiz and in Hudaida in the west, killing 21 people.

The next day they again fired at a crowd of protesters in Taiz, wounding dozens. Protesters responded by hurling rocks. Three people were killed in clashes in the capital Sanaa.

Local analysts say Saleh's party's ability to stage big rallies emboldens him, even as hundreds of thousands demand his resignation. State news agency Saba quoted vice-president Hadi warning on Wednesday against "unrealistic demands".

Saleh has been trying for several weeks to involve Saudi Arabia, his most important foreign backer, sending his foreign minister to Riyadh two weeks ago.

"We hope that we will strike a deal," Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in New York on Wednesday.

"We (Gulf states) have been meeting for the last few days in Riyadh and we're sending a proposal for him and the opposition and we hope a meeting will be held between his team and the opposition to try to find a way out of this problem," he said.

Gulf Arabs have begun circulating names of people who could a transitional council, one Gulf source said.

They include Sheikh Hamid Al Ahmar, a leading figure among Yemen's powerful tribes; Abdulkarim Al Iryani, a US-educated former prime minister and currently an adviser to Saleh; and another former premier Abdulaziz Abdul-Ghani.

"The proposal is to have a governing council grouping all the various political parties and tribes for a period that would not exceed three months," he said, adding the plan would be presented to Saleh and his opponents at talks soon in Riyadh.

"The talks in Saudi Arabia will discuss the modalities and mechanism for transition of power," another source close to the discussions told Reuters. "There are some names being circulated to head a transitional council."

But it is not clear whether any of these could win support among the opposition, which includes the Islamist Islah party, socialists, Arab nationalists and others.

Opposition sources say Saleh trusts his Saudi ally to make sure the leader of the council is a figure acceptable to him. The council would appoint the national unity government in coordination with the Saleh-appointed vice president.

Saleh is a clever operator who has survived many tussles with rivals, and skilfully used bribes and favours to keep tribal and political backers loyal.

But keeping his allies' loyalty has become more difficult as Yemen sinks into an economic crisis. More than 40 percent of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day while a third face chronic hunger. Dwindling water and oil supplies are also problems.

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter and key ally and funder of Saleh, fears that its neighbour could fragment along tribal or regional lines if a way is not found out of the crisis soon -- something Saleh has warned of in recent speeches.

Washington has long seen Saleh as a pivotal ally in its fight against Al Qaeda. In return for billions of dollars in military aid, Saleh has pledged to fight militants and allowed unpopular US air strikes on their camps.

Some analysts say Saleh pays more attention to Riyadh.

"I don't think the United States is a player, they have much less influence ... the only country Saleh cares about is Saudi Arabia," said analyst Barak Barfi of the New America Foundation.