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Wed 25 May 2011 09:08 PM

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Yemeni president 'will not bow to international dictates'

Ali Abdullah Saleh accuses his opponents of trying to provoke civil war amid battle for power

Yemeni president 'will not bow to international dictates'
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (AFP/Getty Images)

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said on Wednesday he would not bow to international "dictates" to step down and accused his opponents of trying to provoke civil war on a third day of fighting in the capital.

Saleh, who has ruled the fractious Arabian Peninsula state for nearly 33 years, said he remained willing in principle to sign a Gulf-brokered deal to end his rule after months of protests, but few Yemen observers see him signing away power.

Speaking to Reuters at his heavily-guarded presidential compound not far from thousands of protesters who have camped in the capital since January demanding his exit, the 69-year-old president had the confidence of a man who has governed one of the most difficult countries in the world.

The Gulf-mediated deal he has resisted signing so far would grant him immunity from prosecution, but he said he had no plans to leave Yemen and was not afraid of being pursued legally.

"I will stay in Yemen. I will preside over my party and I will be in the opposition. I will lead the political process... and will be a partner in power," he told Reuters.

"Who will prosecute who? I am a normal citizen. I will transfer power if they (the opposition) come to the table of dialogue peacefully."

He warned foreign powers not to try to impose their own solution to the Yemeni standoff, and complained that Gulf Cooperation Council leader Abdullatif al-Zayani, who has spearheaded mediation efforts, had not paid him due respect.

"He told me either you sign or you are rejecting the deal. This is not the way you address a head of state," Saleh said. "We do not take dictates or orders from anybody."

Saleh has become synonymous with this destitute tribal state at the foot of the Arabian peninsula, which is awash with weaponry and corruption and beset by separatism in the south, a Shi'ite uprising in the north and a growing al Qaeda presence.

Forces loyal to the president have fought fierce battles in Sanaa since Monday with militia from a powerful tribal federation whose leader has sided with the protesters. The clashes have killed at least 39 people.

The turmoil has renewed fears this country of 23 million people could become a failed state like Somalia on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, which holds the world's biggest oil reserves.

Saleh dismissed such scenarios as scaremongering.

"Yemen, I hope, will not be a failed state or another Somalia. The people are still determined to have a peaceful transition of power," Saleh, dressed in an elegant dark suit told selected media including Reuters earlier.

Rivalling Pakistan and Afghanistan as an incubator of and shelter for al Qaeda, Yemen shows signs of becoming a serious international threat.

Even before the popular uprising, its economy was prostrate and the government, reliant on foreign aid and dwindling oil revenue, was running out of the cash needed to keep the government's patronage system going.

The clashes, in the sandbagged streets surrounding the mansion of tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar, erupted after Saleh refused on Sunday at the last minute to sign the Gulf-brokered deal that would ease him out of power within a month.

The opposition had warned that attacks by loyalist forces could spark a civil war and crush hopes for a political solution to the revolt, inspired by protests that swept aside the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

Saleh said al-Ahmar and his allies were to blame.

"What happened was a provocative act to drag us into civil war, but it is limited to the Ahmar sons. They bear responsibility for shedding the blood of innocent civilians."

Saleh had backed out of previous deals, but Sunday's turnabout was the one that most angered mediators, since loyalist gunmen had earlier trapped Western and Arab diplomats in the United Arab Emirates embassy for several hours.

Saleh said the deal remained on the table. "I am ready to sign within a national dialogue and a clear mechanism. If the mechanism is sound, we will sign the transition of power deal and we will give up power."

"No more concessions after today," he said at his palace, surrounded with aides also dressed in dark suits.

The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by a wing of al Qaeda based in Yemen, have been involved in talks to end the crisis and avert a spread of anarchy that could give the global jihadist network more room to operate.

Saleh said it was not for outsiders to decide.

"I accept a comprehensive initiative and the truth of the matter that everyone should understand is that we do not take foreign orders. This is an internal matter, no one will implement foreign orders."

He painted a picture of a future prosperous, democratic Yemen, far from the poverty that has left more than 40 per cent of the population living on less than $2 a day.

"Violence and terrorism will be eliminated and the economy will be rebuilt. Society will be developed into a democracy. Yemen cannot be a fertile ground or a safe haven for al Qaeda. Yemeni society will not allow that," he said.

Critics say Yemen's problems stem from mismanagement and neglect, as well as Saleh's history of seeking political support from Islamists and installing a system of tribal patronage to keep a firm grip on power.

They also note key government positions and business franchises are held by members of his family and tribe.

Two thirds of Yemen's population, already the largest in the peniunsula and set to double by 2035, are under 24 years old. The literacy rate is 33 percent for women and 49 percent for men and unemployment stands at around 40 percent.

In the interview, Saleh said al Qaeda had stepped up its attacks against security forces in Yemen over the past few months but coordination with Washington in the fight against terrorism was continuing and going well.

The stress of dealing with Yemen's multiple revolts, its incessant power feuds and rising al Qaeda violence, appeared to have no effect on his enthusiasm for power.

He likes to tell foreign journalists ruling Yemen is as delicate as dancing on the heads of snakes.

When I asked if he really planned to leave power or was manouevring to stay, he answered with a laugh, a handshake and a broad smile.

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