SANAA, (Reuters) – Yemen accepted an invitation by Gulf Arab states Tuesday to talks on its weeks-old political crisis as pressure mounted on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to accept a power transition that would end his 32-year rule.
The Gulf Cooperation Council invited government and opposition representatives to talks in Saudi Arabia, at a date yet to be set, as the United States pressed Saleh to negotiate with his opponents.
The initiative may do little to satisfy tens of thousands of protesters who have camped out in cities across Yemen for weeks to demand Saleh’s ouster. They have grown increasingly frustrated after initial talks stalled and security forces cracked down on them with escalating violence.
At least 21 people were killed Monday when security forces and armed men in civilian clothes fired on protesters in Taiz, south of capital Sanaa, and the Red Sea port of Hudaida.
Abubakr al-Qirbi, acting foreign minister after Saleh sacked his government two weeks ago, said the government would agree to talks in Riyadh. Saleh had ignored a proposed power transition plan pitched by the opposition Saturday.
“We welcome the GCC invitation and the government is ready to discuss any ideas from our Gulf brothers to solve the crisis,” Qirbi said.
Leaders from core political opposition groups had yet to give a response, saying they would only answer when they received details of the proposed talks.
Aides to General Ali Mohsen, a key military leader who recently threw his weight behind the protesters, said he had also accepted the call for talks in Saudi Arabia.
Some diplomats in Saudi Arabia have suggested Riyadh wants Mohsen to replace Saleh, though the general has said he is not interested in taking power. Civil society opposition groups say Mohsen, 70, an Islamist, is tainted by his kinship and long-time association with the veteran ruler.
A 2005 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks said: “Ali Mohsen would likely face domestic as well as international opposition if he sought the presidency… Yemenis generally view him as cynical and self-interested.”
Then U.S. ambassador Thomas Krajeski wrote that Mohsen was “a major beneficiary of diesel smuggling in recent years (and) also appears to have amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products.”
OUT WITHIN A WEEK?
The protesters have grown more restless as haggling over talks continues, organising several attempts to march on presidential or government buildings in several cities.
“I think Saleh will fall within a week,” said Yemeni analyst Ali Seif Hassan. “Especially after what happened in Taiz. The people cannot stand it any more. They are not going to wait in their tents after they saw so many of their peers killed.”
Frustration with Saleh’s intransigence may push Yemenis, many of them heavily armed and no strangers to wars and insurgencies, closer to a violent power struggle.
One of Washington’s fears has been that Yemen could fragment along tribal and regional lines — a spectre Saleh has raised in speeches — allowing al Qaeda’s aggressive regional wing based in the impoverished country to stage more attacks abroad.
More than 100 people have been killed since anti-government protests began in Yemen, including the March 18 killings of 52 anti-government protesters by rooftop snipers in Sanaa.
That incident, which led Saleh to declare a state of emergency, prompted top Yemeni generals, ambassadors and some tribes to back the protesters in a major blow to the president.
U.S. PRESSURES TRANSFER
Monday, U.S. officials said Washington was ratcheting up pressure on Saleh to work towards a power transition plan with the opposition.
“It looks increasingly like he needs to step aside,” one U.S. official told Reuters, saying the United States was trying to “turn up the heat” on Saleh to come to terms with the opposition.
The United States has long seen Saleh as a pivotal ally in its fight against al Qaeda. He has allowed strikes on suspected camps and has pledged to fight militancy in return for billions of dollars in military aid.
Despite having floated the possibility of stepping down, Saleh appeared increasingly defiant at the weekend, saying that he would defend Yemen with “blood and soul,” and security forces launched a bloody crackdown Monday.
Human Rights Watch called on foreign powers to suspend military aid due to violence against demonstrators. Police shot at protesters in Taiz trying to storm a government building, killing at least 15 and wounding 13, hospital sources said.
In Hudaida, police and armed men in civilian clothes attacked a march towards a presidential palace. At least six people died from gunshot wounds, 30 were wounded from stabbings and around 270 were hurt by tear gas inhalation.
“The United States and other governments should suspend military aid to Yemen until authorities stop the attacks and hold those responsible to account,” HRW’s Joe Stork said. “These repeated attacks show that condemnation alone will not stop bloodshed.”