SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen said on Wednesday it had received a positive global response to an offer by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down when his term ends in 2013, but was still trying to draw the opposition to the negotiating table.
Yemen’s opposition said a dialogue, which was expected to start this week, had been delayed so that it could consult with opposition figures outside the Arabian Peninsula country, a U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda.
“The global reaction is good but unfortunately the opposition has not responded to us until now,” Yemeni Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Megawar said, after talks between visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Saleh.
“There is a big welcome from Britain of the president’s initiative that came at the right time. It is a concession the president put forward for the sake of Yemen,” Megawar said.
Saleh, in power for 30 years but eyeing the unrest in parts of the Arab world, indicated a week ago that he would not seek another term and pledged that his son would not take over the reins of government.
The move, along with other concessions including a renewed offer for a unity government, was Saleh’s boldest gambit yet to stave off turmoil in Yemen and avert a showdown with protesters in the impoverished state.
But the initiative did not stop tens of thousands of Yemenis gathering for an opposition-led “Day of Rage” last Thursday to demand a change in government, inspired by protests that toppled Tunisia’s ruler and threaten Egypt’s president. A pro-government counter-protest drew large numbers as well.
Yemeni officials said Britain’s Hague, in Sanaa as part of a regional tour, had met Saleh and was due to hold talks with opposition politicians.
“We have discussed issues of political and constitutional reforms, and combating terrorism,” Hague told reporters.
Yemeni officials and a Western diplomat said Hague was expected to try to press the opposition for a response on Saleh’s initiative. The opposition said it wanted Western and Gulf supervision for dialogue with the government.
“We formally received the initiative yesterday, and we need to study it and will respond within days,” opposition spokesman Mohammed Qabati said.
“Among the assurances (needed), we request that the dialogue take place under the auspices of the Friends of Yemen group so that there will be a commitment to carry out what is agreed on,” he added, referring to Western and Gulf Arab donors who are due to meet in Riyadh next month.
Instability in Yemen would present serious political and security risks for Gulf states. The United States relies heavily on Saleh to help combat al Qaeda’s Yemen-based arm, which also targets neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter.
U.S. President Barack Obama urged Saleh last week to follow up his pledges of reform with “concrete actions.”
Saleh, a shrewd political survivor, has backed out of previous promises to step aside. Analysts say Wednesday’s pledge could be a genuine way to exit gracefully but he may also hope to wait out regional unrest and reassert dominance another day.
Yemen’s opposition coalition has said it wanted assurances that reforms would be implemented and has demanded better living conditions for Yemenis, about 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, while a third suffer from chronic hunger.
Reporting by Mohamed Sudam and Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Janet Lawrence