SANAA (Reuters) - Thousands of Yemenis marched toward the capital Thursday, to demand President Ali Abdullah Saleh face trial for killing protesters during 11 months of demonstrations against him, and to denounce a new government that would spare him prosecution.
The United Nations, which endorsed a pact brokered by Yemen’s wealthier neighbors to stave off civil war by easing Saleh from power, said he would need medical treatment abroad while the country prepares to elect a successor.
The struggle over Saleh’s fate has rekindled the impoverished country’s multiple conflicts, and fanned fears in Washington that the Yemeni wing of al Qaeda could grow stronger if the Arabian Peninsula state descends further into chaos.
“The goal is to bring down the regime and try its figures, to refuse giving Saleh and his aides any parliamentary immunity,” said Waddah al-Adeeb, an organizer of the march which set out from the southern city of Taiz earlier this week.
“And we reject the unity government, because it just reproduces the regime itself,” he said by telephone from some 100 km (62 miles) south of the capital Sanaa.
He was referring to a government split between members of Saleh’s party and opposition parties tasked with leading Yemen to the vote in February.
It is also to oversee the disengagement of troops loyal to Saleh, including a well-armed unit led by his son, and those of tribesmen and rebel army factions that have waged war in Sanaa and elsewhere.
The government’s role is laid out in the transition pact, echoed by a U.N. Security Council resolution, that would make Saleh the fourth leader to surrender power after mass protests that have redrawn the political map of the Middle East.
U.N. Yemen envoy Jamal Benomar, who is attempting to implement the transition plan, said Wednesday that efforts were underway to arrange treatment for Saleh, who suffered burns and other injuries in an apparent assassination attempt in June.
Yemeni government and opposition officials said Wednesday that efforts to pull pro-Saleh forces and those of tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar from the capital’s Hasaba and Soufan districts, where they have clashed sporadically, had stalled.
In a statement, Saleh’s party said the protest march violated pledges in the agreement to end mass demonstrations, warning it “would not be responsible for the collapse of the initiative, while others violate its letter and spirit.”
Any successor government will face multiple challenges including resurgent separatist sentiment in the south, formerly a socialist republic that fought a civil war with Saleh’s north in 1994 after four turbulent years of formal union.
The region is also home to Islamists who have seized chunks of Abyan province. Ensuing fighting with government troops has sparked mass flight, compounding humanitarian crisis in a country with some 500,000 internally displaced people.
An official in Abyan, whose capital Zinjibar fell to Islamist fighters in May, said that seven government troops and as many as 20 Islamist fighters had been killed since Tuesday in a fresh round of fighting in that city.
In another southern province, Lahej, a local official said six men suspected of membership in al Qaeda had been detained.
Saleh’s opponents accuse him of fomenting chaos and ceding territory to Islamists in the region to underline his claim that only his rule can contain the country’s al Qaeda branch, which has planned attacks abroad, abortive to date, from Yemen.
The United States, which long backed Saleh as a cornerstone of its “counter-terrorism” policy and has carried out drone attacks in Yemen, has thrown its weight behind the plan to replace him, seeing him as more a liability than asset now.
There have also been repeated attacks on Yemen’s main oil pipeline, paralyzing the country’s largest refinery and leading to acute fuel shortages and cut-offs of exports that in turn fund imports of staple foodstuffs.
The Yemeni state news agency Wednesday quoted the oil minister as saying those attacks had cost Yemen $700 million, without elaborating whether that sum came from lost exports, estimated damage to infrastructure or both.
Separately, a source in the office of Yemen’s new prime minister said a ministerial committee had been formed to run the flagship airline Yemeniyya, in response to a strike by workers demanding the sacking of its top executive and Saleh’s son-in-law, Abdeul Khaleq al-Qadi.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Joseph Logan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Matthew Jones