Exiled Yemen opposition leader killed on return

SANAA Fri Jul 30, 2010 11:13am EDT

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SANAA (Reuters) - An opposition leader shot in the head after returning to his native Yemen from 32 years in exile died of his wounds, his party announced on its website Friday.

Abd al-Raqib al-Qirshi, who died on Thursday, was killed at the start of a new national political dialogue announced in a May speech where Yemen's president offered amnesty to political opponents, allowing Qirshi to return.

"Abd al-Raqib al-Qirshi died in a hospital in the Syrian capital Damascus," his party's statement said.

"He was moved there when he sustained wounds to the head from an assassination attempt last month. He had been in a coma since that time."

Supporters believe Qirshi, who was still a major opposition figure while in exile and one of the first to return after the pardon, was killed by the government.

They rejected an official explanation that his death was the result of a personal feud.

Although his killing was not expected to affect the political dialogue initiative, it may discourage other opposition leaders, many of whom are still in exile, from returning to Yemen.

Sanaa is struggling to curb a rising southern separatist movement that has grown increasingly violent, and maintain a fragile truce declared in February with northern Shi'ite rebels engaged in an intermittent war since 2004.

Qirshi had been a leader of the Wahdawi, or Unity, organization, which has a pan-Arab and socialist ideology.

He was sentenced to death when Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, came to power in 1978, on charges of leading an armed rebel group in south Yemen, the Wahdawi statement said.

The former leader had been back in Yemen for only three weeks when he was shot in the head and was sent to Damascus for treatment.

The Interior Ministry said that police had five suspects, but had not made any arrests.

REBELS JOIN DIALOGUE

The political dialogue talks that started this week included representatives of the northern rebels. It was the first time the president had agreed to include his fiercest foes -- the northern rebels and southern separatists -- in talks alongside other opposition groups.

Secessionists from the Southern Movement, however, did not attend the first preparatory committee that met Thursday to discuss the terms and outlines of the dialogue.

Struggling with spiraling violence and a deepening recession, Saleh said in May that the dialogue could lead to the formation of a unity government.

Impoverished Yemen, neighbor to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, has come under international pressure to quell domestic conflict and focus on fighting a resurgent regional al Qaeda wing which is based in the country.

The move to begin political dialogue is seen by analysts and the opposition as an effort to relieve foreign pressure.

A similar attempt with Yemen's opposition last year fell flat. Both sides accused each other of undermining the process in a country where declining oil income has undermined efforts to tackle poverty, unemployment and failing water resources.

(Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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