SANAA (Reuters) – Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to sign an agreement on Sunday to step down, the third time such a deal has fallen through at the last minute, despite pressure from Gulf Arab and Western mediators.
Saleh has said al Qaeda militants could fill a political and security vacuum if he is forced out and, in a televised speech on Sunday, blamed the opposition for the deal’s collapse.
“If (Yemen) is engulfed in a civil war, they will be responsible for it and the bloodshed,” he said.
The deal would have given Saleh immunity from prosecution, ensuring a dignified exit after nearly 33 years in power. If he had signed it, he would have become the third long-entrenched Arab leader ousted by popular protests since January.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based regional wing, are keen to end the Yemeni stalemate and avert a spread of anarchy that could give the global militant network more room to operate.
“Saleh is not serious about getting out of power. And this is part of his strategy to remain in charge,” Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik said, adding that the 69-year-old ruler was no longer seen as a trusted partner.
“He might be able to hang on, but the pressure from outside is going to be so intense now that it could be his days are numbered,” he said.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc of Yemen’s oil-rich neighbors and Western powers have exerted intense diplomatic efforts to secure a deal and end the violence in which more than 170 Yemeni demonstrators have been killed.
The GCC called for “a swift signing by President Ali Abdullah Saleh … and a peaceful transition of power.”
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday that Saleh needed to “follow through on his commitment to transfer power.” European diplomats have also leaned on both sides to agree on a deal.
But in a move likely to infuriate the Gulf and Western countries, gunmen loyal to Saleh surrounded the United Arab Emirates embassy on Sunday, trapping inside Gulf and Western ambassadors working to resolve the crisis and preventing them from going to the presidential palace to see Saleh.
The UAE urged Yemeni authorities to secure its embassy, and the diplomats were later reported to have left by helicopter.
Yemen’s opposition coalition, including Islamists and leftists, had already signed the deal on Saturday after indications from Gulf mediators that Saleh would sign on Sunday.
But diplomats said Saleh had demanded the opposition go to the presidential palace to sign the agreement again in his presence. The opposition said it had already signed and would not go.
The opposition is under pressure to avoid further compromises from youth-led street protesters, including students and tribesmen, who seek Saleh’s immediate exit and who have vowed to continue daily rallies until Saleh quits.
“The opposition did not want to go to the palace because it knows that the revolution leaders in Sanaa will be very angry,” Hakim al-Masmari, editor of Yemen Post, told Al Jazeera.
“It will make Saleh look victorious, like a person who is leaving power with honor and dignity, rather than a person who has killed hundreds of Yemenis over the months of the Yemen revolution,” Al Jazeera quoted Masmari as saying on its website.