Embattled Yemen leader rejects Gulf exit plan

by Hammoud Mounassar, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 08 2011 09:52 PM | Updated as of Apr 09 2011 05:52 AM

SANAA, Yemen - Embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh rejected an exit plan by Gulf states trying to broker an end to bloody unrest, as tens of thousands of Yemenis massed on Friday for pro- and anti-regime protests.

"Our power comes from the power of our great people, not from Qatar, not from anyone else. This is blatant interference in Yemeni affairs," Saleh told a massive crowd of regime supporters in Sanaa.

"We were born free, and we have free will, and they have to respect our wishes. We reject any coup against democracy, the constitution and our freedom," he said.

His speech came a day after Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani had said members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) "hope to reach a deal with the Yemeni president to step down."

It was delivered as tens of thousands of Yemenis turned out for rival protests in the capital, one supporting the veteran president and the other calling for his departure.

After weekly Muslim prayers, supporters in Tahrir (Liberty) Square chanted "with our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for Ali Abdullah Saleh," some of them carrying his picture.

"The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh," they chanted, in a variation on the ubiquitous opposition slogan, "the people want to topple the regime."

They then marched from Tahrir to Sabaeen Square, where Saleh delivered his speech.

A few kilometres (miles) away, anti-regime protesters massed at a square near Sanaa University, chanting "Go, Ali!"

Clashes were not reported at either demonstration.

The slogan of the anti-government gathering was "Day of Steadfastness," while the pro-government rally was dubbed the "Day of Reconciliation."

Saleh, a strategic ally in the US fight against Al-Qaeda, has been in power since 1978.

The GCC proposal to Saleh would have seen him hand power over to his deputy, while providing guarantees of protection to him and his family, the opposition said.

A diplomat in Sanaa confirmed the content of the proposal, adding that it includes forming a national unity government led by the opposition.

The offer resembles one the opposition itself made at the weekend calling for Saleh to make way for Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi to head a caretaker regime.

In contrast to his Friday remarks, Saleh had welcomed Gulf mediation on Wednesday, according to state news agency Saba, which said he "affirmed the necessity of a serious and fruitful dialogue to overcome the current crisis."

Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi said in a statement published on Friday that the government was studying the Gulf proposal, and that "any initiative aimed at finding a solution to the crisis in accord with the constitution of the Republic of Yemen is welcome."

About 125 people have been killed since protests, inspired by successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, began in January.

Washington has expressed fears that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the active branch of the global terror network based in Yemen, could take advantage of a prolonged crisis, and has pressed Saleh to negotiate a power transition.

"Yemen has really eased up the pressure on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday of the militant group's Yemen-based franchise.

The Pentagon has said there are no plans to suspend US military aid to Yemen.

But The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed US officials on Friday as saying Washington halted an aid package potentially worth $1 billion or more in February amid the growing unrest.

US diplomatic cables released by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks show that Washington received but dismissed warnings over a year before the protests began on Saleh's increasingly tenuous position and Yemen's political fragility.

In addition to concerns expressed by officials from Gulf and European states, wealthy businessman Hamid al-Ahmar vowed to trigger mass demonstrations against Saleh if he did not "guarantee" free and fair parliamentary elections, the cables show.

Yemen controls the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the strategic entrance to the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, through which three million barrels of Gulf oil transits each day towards the Suez Canal and Europe.