SANAA/ADEN, (Reuters) – Yemen’s acting leader has put forward a new plan to end the country’s political stalemate, which would keep President Ali Abdullah Saleh in power longer than outlined in earlier initiatives, an opposition source said on Thursday.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who flew to neighbouring Saudi Arabia last month after an assassination attempt, has exasperated tens of thousands of Yemenis by hanging on to power despite international pressure and six months of protests against his 33-year rule.
A Gulf Arab initiative that would have seen Saleh resign 30 days after signing it fell through three times when he backed out at the last minute, leaving the country in political limbo.
An opposition leader said Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is at the helm while Saleh recovers in Riyadh, had approached the opposition with an alternative to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative.
“The essence of these ideas is to begin the transitional period by forming one national government led by the opposition and changing the date of presidential elections from 60 days to a longer period, without transferring power completely to the vice president,” said the opposition figure, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity after the meeting with Hadi.
The new plan is a step backward for the opposition, which had hoped Saleh’s time was up when he left the country to get medical treatment after a bomb exploded in his presidential palace. But while veteran leaders in Egypt and Tunisia have bowed to popular demands they quit, Saleh has proved a shrewd political survivor.
A second senior opposition member said they would not back down: “We are prepared to deal positively with the initiative on the condition that power is transferred to the vice president first.” Hadi said this would be difficult.
A speech recorded by Saleh, who has not been seen since the attack, will be broadcast “within hours,” the defence ministry website said. Messages have not materialised after previous such reports.
At least 10 soldiers were killed in a fresh attack by militants on an army base near the southern town of Zinjibar, where a brigade has been trapped for more than a month. A local official said militants had started shelling the base late on Wednesday.
Yemen’s south has descended into bloodshed in recent months, with Islamist militants suspected of links to al Qaeda seizing two cities in the flashpoint province of Abyan, including Zinjibar, its capital.
Western powers and oil giant Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda is exploiting the security vacuum in Yemen, from which it has previously launched failed attacks against the United States and a Saudi government minister.
Separately, unidentified gunmen stopped a vehicle carrying soldiers and civilians to the city of Lawdar, also in Abyan, and shot dead 10 soldiers after finding their military IDs, local residents said.
Opponents of Saleh, who earned U.S. backing by portraying himself as a partner against al Qaeda, accuse him of letting militants get the upper hand to convince the United States and Saudi Arabia only he can prevent an Islamist militant takeover.
A military official told Yemen’s state news agency on Thursday the army had dealt a blow to al Qaeda, killing two prominent members of the organisation in the Zinjibar area. Earlier, the official said a military commander of al Qaeda’s Yemen wing, Abu Khalid al-Asiri, was among 40 militants killed by armed forces in Abyan on Monday.
In protest hubs such as the capital Sanaa and the industrial city of Taiz, a tense standoff prevails between Saleh loyalists and armed tribesmen who have appointed themselves to defend protesters.
There are signs the uneasy calm may not hold indefinitely. Two soldiers were killed and five others wounded in Taiz in clashes late on Wednesday with armed militia loyal to the opposition, the state news agency reported.