Angry protests over Saleh's immunity deal to stand down

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of cities throughout Yemen yesterday to denounce the granting of immunity to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as part of a deal under which he would leave office after 30 days.

The demonstrators chanted: "No negotiations, no dialogue – resign or flee." Their rejection of the terms of the peace plan stems from their distrust of Mr Saleh and a belief that he is offering to resign only in order to gain time and stay in office.

The plan is the latest attempt to defuse the crisis over the future of Mr Saleh who has been in office for 32 years. Drawn up by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), it proposes that he hand over power to his vice-president a month after an agreement is signed by the opposition. Rival parties would join a national unity government in the next week. In return, Mr Saleh, his family and aides, would be granted immunity from prosecution.

Immunity is a key issue both for the government and opposition because Mr Saleh's regime is regarded as corrupt, even compared with countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, whose rulers have already been forced to step down.

The main opposition bloc has conditionally endorsed the GCC peace plan, though it says it will not join a unity government. But the agreement is being rejected by many of the youth and ad hoc groups that have organised the mass demonstrations against Mr Saleh. At least 130 protesters have been killed so far by security forces and by pro-government gunmen.

One of the turning points in the struggle to displace the president came on 18 March when gunmen opened fire on opposition demonstrators in Change Square in Sana'a, killing 55 and wounding hundreds more. In the following days ministers, ambassadors and other officials resigned in protest.

When part of the army switched on 21 March to protecting the protesters, including General Ali Mohsen, the commander of the north-west military zone, many demonstrators believed they were close to victory. But the president has clung on, relying on the Republican Guard led by his son, rallying his allies and supporters, and holding massive counter-demonstrations, which his critics say include many who are paid to turn up.

Yemen has always had difficulties enforcing its authority. The state is weak, with 40 per cent of the 23 million population impoverished and living on less than $2 a day.

Conditions have worsened since demonstrations started in Sana'a on 29 January and work in many industries has halted. In the longer term, Yemen's limited oil reserves are running out, as is the supply of drinkable water. Tribalism also remains powerful and the population is armed with at least two weapons per head.

The US is wary of what might follow Mr Saleh, who has supported US action against al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and in return has received arms and financial aid. AQAP has only some 300 members in Yemen, but is likely to benefit from any change of government in Sana'a that will be weaker than its predecessor and pre-occupied with other pressing political and economic problems. A government spokesman says that 22 soldiers and dozens of others were captured in separate attacks over the previous 24 hours, though other sources say the attackers were tribesmen protesting over local grievances.

Mr Saleh has persistently tried to prevent the US from backing his removal by emphasising the al-Qa'ida threat and suggesting that it has infiltrated the protest movement, though he has produced no evidence for this.

In an interview with the BBC yesterday, Mr Saleh said that any transition had to be constitutional and power could not be handed over to protesters, whom he accused of trying to stage a "coup". He added that chaos was likely to follow his departure. It appears he may be counting on divisions between his opponents, who have no plan for the transition aside from Mr Saleh's immediate departure, to stay in office.

For all Mr Saleh's delaying tactics, he is likely to go because of the strength of the opposition against him at home and his lack of firm support from the US or the countries of the GCC.

Profile

* Born into a Shia family in Sana'a during the 1940s, Ali Abdullah Saleh received little formal education, and spent his early adulthood in the army. In the 1970s he saw action in the country's civil war between the north and the south. By 1978, he had become a sufficiently influential figure to be endorsed as the president of northern Yemen.

His greatest triumph came with the reunification of the north and south in 1990, when he became president of the whole country. He has remained in office ever since, surviving a wide range of threats to his rule, including a brief return to civil war in the early 1990s, a tribal insurgency in the north, and more recently the rise of al Qai'da.

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