SANAA, (Reuters) – Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in an interview published on Friday that he will only step down if key rivals do not take over, a stance that could further hinder a long-stalled deal to ease him out of power.
“Because if we transfer power and they are there, this will mean that we have given into a coup,” Saleh told The Washington Post and Time magazine.
Saleh has hung onto power despite eight months of mass protests demanding an end to his 33-year rule and a June assassination attempt that sent him to Saudi Arabia for three months of treatment for severe burn injuries.
His surprise return to Yemen last week halted negotiations over a Gulf-brokered transition plan that had been revived despite days of heavy violence in the capital.
Over 100 people have been killed in violence that has rocked Sanaa two weeks. Loyalist troops have been fighting with the forces of rebel General Ali Mohsen and the fighters of tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar, both of whom have joined the opposition.
Saleh wants Mohsen, whose defection in March dealt a great blow to the president, and Ahmar and his brother Hamid to be excluded from power. That could prove difficult as Hamid al-Ahmar has expressed an interest in the presidency and Mohsen commands a large force around the country.
Diplomats have been working on a plan under which Saleh’s family, Mohsen, and the Ahmar clan would back off and perhaps leave the country. Mohsen has expressed approval.
Saleh said his party was not slowing down a deal and blamed the opposition for the delay. He also said he would not run in an early election envisaged by the Gulf transition plan.
“As for me, I will retire – since the opposition has helped bring the president closer to retirement through the criminal act that happened at the presidential mosque,” he said.
Saleh hinted that Mohsen and Ahmar clan members could be implicated in the bombing of his compound which left him scarred and severely burned, saying they could face prosecution pending the results of a U.S. investigation into the attack.
The veteran leader, who has three times backed out of signing the Gulf initiative, urged the international community to have more patience in reaching a deal, and brandished the spectre that without him Islamist parties and al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing might increase their sway.
Foreign powers fear rising turmoil on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, home to the world’s largest oil reserves. Islamist militants, emboldened by the unrest, have seized several cities in a province that lies east of a major shipping lane.
“But what we see is that we are pressed by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power,” Saleh said. “And we know where power is going to go. It is going to al Qaeda, which is directly and completely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Opposition groups accuse Saleh of giving militants more leeway in a ploy to frighten Western powers and convince them that he is the best defense against al Qaeda.