SANAA A deal on a transition of power in Yemen fell through at the last minute on Wednesday, even as Washington stepped up pressure on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign a Gulf-brokered agreement to ease him out of office.
Heavy diplomatic wrangling by Western and Gulf diplomats keen to resolve the three-month standoff had secured an agreement in principle that would see Saleh, a shrewd political survivor, resign within a month, an opposition official said.
But in a familiar twist, last-minute snags over details derailed the deal that would have granted Saleh immunity from prosecution, allowing him a dignified exit from power in the Arabian Peninsula state he has ruled for nearly 33 years.
A government official told Reuters a deal remained possible. "There is still a glimmer of hope," he said.
But the leader of a bloc of Yemen's wealthy oil-exporting Gulf neighbors who has been trying to breathe life into the deal left Sanaa without securing an agreement, in a move that suggests the sides remained significantly at odds.
The United States and oil giant Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks from al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, are keen to see an end to the political stalemate, fearing continued chaos could give the militant group more room to operate freely.
The White House urged Saleh to sign and implement a transition deal so Yemen could "move forward immediately" with political reform. It said John Brennan, an adviser to President Barack Obama, called Saleh earlier in the day.
"Brennan noted that this transfer of power represents the best path forward for Yemen to become a more secure, unified, and prosperous nation and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace and political reform," the statement said.
Some political analysts had doubted whether the deal, which would help end anti-Saleh street protests that have paralysed Yemen's economy, would actually be carried out. Two previous near-deals also fell through at the last minute.
"I won't believe it until I see it, that's what we learned in Yemen ... Everyone thought that the deal was done a few weeks ago but Saleh found a way to back out in the final hours and days." said Shadi Hamid, analyst at the Brookings Doha Center.
"Saleh is notoriously stubborn. If he signs, maybe we'll actually see a conclusion to the crisis in Yemen and that's what people have been waiting for."
MINOR CHANGES TO DEAL
Saleh, who has outlasted previous attempts to challenge his power, indicated in April he would sign the Gulf-brokered deal, but refused to put his name to it in the final hours.
He said at the time he would only sign in his capacity as ruling party leader, not as president.
The opposition, including Islamists and leftists, said the deal tentatively agreed on Wednesday contained minor changes to the April deal, on who would sign and in what capacity.
"The president will sign for the government in his capacity as president of the republic and as head of the ruling party," opposition official Yahya Abu Usbua had said.
The deal broke down after a dispute on who would sign for the opposition. Saleh wanted the rotating head of the coalition, Yassin Noman, a leftist, to sign. The opposition preferred Mohammed Basindwa, tipped as a possible interim prime minister, sources close to the talks said.
The opposition agreed to have Noman as the first opposition signatory, but also wanted Basindwa to be on a list of signatories. Saleh refused and the deal fell through, the sources said.
Protesters, frustrated that their daily rallies have failed to dislodge Saleh, want the 69-year-old leader out immediately and have said they will step up their campaign by marching on government buildings, a move that brought new bloodshed last week as security forces fired to stop them.
"This agreement will annihilate the revolution because Saleh will not implement it," Sanaa activist Meshaal Mujahid said of the new deal, before it fell apart.
Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani said a deal now would reduce tension that could erupt into clashes between military units loyal to Saleh and those backing the protesters.
"What is important about it is that it allows the opportunity to diffuse the military tension," he said.
Protesters blocked the entrance of the Red Sea port of Hudaida, Yemen's second largest port, blocking traffic from entering or leaving, protesters said. The cities of Ibb, Taiz and Hadramout were brought to a standstill as most workers complied with a strike aimed at pressuring Saleh to leave.
(Additional reporting by Sara Anabtawi and Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Jon Hemming)