Yemeni leader backs out of negotiated pact to leave power

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A Gulf-brokered deal to ease Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power neared collapse yesterday after he refused to sign, raising the threat of increased instability in the Arabian Peninsula state.

The pact would have made Mr Saleh, a shrewd political survivor who has been in power for 33 years, the third ruler ousted by a wave of popular pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world. He had been due to sign the deal on Saturday.

Yemen's opposition, furious over the last-minute change of heart that it described as a manoeuvre, said it was considering escalating pressure on the President to step aside after three months of street protests demanding his ousting. "We are studying the options of escalations and waiting for a US-European stance on Saleh's refusal to sign," a senior opposition leader said.

A Gulf source said a formal signing ceremony in Riyadh yesterday, in which the opposition had been due to seal the deal, was postponed after Mr Saleh's refusal. The source gave no word on whether it might be rescheduled.

The United States and neighbouring oil giant, Saudi Arabia, want the Yemen stand-off resolved to avert chaos that could make a Yemen wing of al-Qa'ida a greater threat to the region.

Gulf Arab foreign ministers were to meet to discuss the crisis. But the opposition said it would not travel to Riyadh on Sunday to join the talks, saying there was no reason to attend.

Gulf Co-operation Council mediators told Yemen's opposition on Saturday that Mr Saleh had been willing to sign the deal as leader of his party but had refused in his capacity as President. The GCC's Secretary-General, who was in Sana'a for the signing, left Yemen without securing Mr Saleh's signature.

"This is very typical Saleh. He is trying to get more time. He puts off the inevitable. This is part of his personality," Theodore Karasik, a Dubai-based security analyst, said. "A negotiated solution is slowly slipping away, and some type of pressure is going to have to be applied as opposed to words."

Yemen's opposition said it still hoped Gulf states would get Mr Saleh's signature. Mr Saleh and the opposition, which includes Islamists and leftists, had agreed the deal in principle.

"The matter is now with the Gulf states. If they are able to persuade Saleh, that would be good," Mohammed Basindwa, an opposition figure tipped as a possible interim prime minister, said late on Saturday.

Mr Saleh, who spoke by phone on Sunday with the Saudi and Bahraini kings, was reported to have told them he continued to welcome the Gulf initiative, Yemeni state media said.

A deal, if it is put back on the table, would see Mr Saleh appoint a prime minister from the opposition to head a transitional government, which would set a presidential vote for 60 days after he leaves. It would also grant immunity from prosecution to Mr Saleh.