SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh suggested Saturday that within days he would step down, a promise he has made three times already this year, and analysts said it was yet another stalling tactic.
A government official said Saleh was merely indicating readiness to reach a deal to end months of unrest.
The wily leader, who came to power in 1978, is under pressure from international allies and an array of street activists, armed opponents and opposition parties to make good on promises to hand over power and end a crisis that has raised the spectre of a failed Arab state overrun by militants.
Confusion over Saleh’s intent was familiar fare in a conflict that has dragged on since January when protesters first took to the streets to demand reform and an end to the grip on power that Saleh and his family have had for 33 years.
“I reject power and I will continue to reject it, and I will be leaving power in the coming days,” Saleh said in a speech on state television.
Saleh has already pulled back three times from signing a Gulf Arab peace initiative that would seen him form an opposition-led cabinet and then hand power to his deputy before early parliamentary and presidential elections.
Officials said often during his covalescence in Riyadh after an assassination attempt in June he would return “in days” or “soon.” He flew back unannounced in late September.
“He said this to show his commitment to this plan, but there is no plan for a resignation or transfer of powers before we have agreed and signed a deal. That would just plunge the country into chaos or even war,” Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi told Reuters.
“He is ready to leave power in days, yes, but whether this happens in the coming days or months will depend on the success of negotiations for a deal.”
Protests against Saleh’s rule paralysed Yemen, weakening government control over swathes of the country and fanning fears al Qaeda’s regional wing may use the upheaval to expand its foothold near oil-shipping routes through the Red Sea.
Saleh’s comments may been aimed at trouble that could come his way from New York next week.
Diplomats have said they are close to getting international consensus on a Security Council resolution, which could come as early as next week, that would call on the government to implement the Gulf plan, which has U.S. backing.
A U.N. envoy, Jamal Beomar, left Yemen to brief the council last week after a fruitless two weeks trying to mediate between Saleh’s government and the opposition.
In his speech, Saleh repeated his condition that he will not hand power to long-time rivals from the opposition parties, who he says have hijacked the youth activists’ protest and aim to subvert the constitutional process.
Saleh’s presidential term ends in 2013 and he has said he will not run again, but analysts suspect he would like to outlast the crisis until then. The state of his health is not clear though after he was badly burned in the June attack.
“This is new propaganda from Saleh before Yemen is discussed at the Security Council,” said Mohammed al-Sabri, a spokesman for the opposition coalition group.
“Four months have passed since he said he accepted the Gulf transition deal, so what is stopping him? He doesn’t even need a few days to do it.”
New pressure came from an unexpected quarter Friday when the Nobel Peace prize was awarded to Tawakul Karman, one of the leading activists who has been on the street at ‘Change Square’ outside Sanaa University since February.
The recognition of a Yemeni democracy activist is set to bring renewed global attention to the struggle in Yemen, an impoverished country of 23 million with problems stretching from declining water resources to al Qaeda militants taking advantage of chaos in the capital.
Karman used the prize to push home the message that street mobilisation will not stop until the uprisings claim Yemen too.
“This is just Saleh’s latest line. I don’t think it’s really anything new,” said political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani. “I remember he once before said he would be ready to leave any day, so I don’t think he means what he said.”
Public U.S. pressure has been lacking even as he cooperates with Washington in its covert war on militants in Yemen.
A CIA drone killed American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last month in what was seen as a major coup for U.S. President Barack Obama in the battle against al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia, a key financial backer of Saleh’s government, shares U.S. concerns about al Qaeda and is as keen as Saleh is to control the succession process.
Analysts say a power transition involving Saleh stepping down and early elections will not be feasible while the capital and much of the country is under the military and security thumb of his relatives.
Fighters from the Ahmar clan and renegade general Ali Mohsen -- both opponents who are backing the protesters -- have staked out their turf in the capital.
Opposition politician Ali Seif Hassan said Saleh was threatening the opposition in the speech that if they do not come to an agreement with him, he will go to elections on this own terms.
“It’s clear he wants to run the elections while his son and relatives are still running most of the military,” he said.
In the speech, Saleh seemed to signal fuller backing for his vice president Abd-Rabbu Hadi Mansour. State television showed Mansour rather than Saleh greeting parliamentarians afterwards at the presidential palace.
Mansour has long been seen as the ideal consensus candidate acceptable to the opposition, though hardliners in the ruling party have shunned him.
“I want to praise the vice president for his leadership in my absence... He is an experienced military man,” Saleh said.
Even before the wave of pro-democracy protests against his nearly rule, Saleh, 69, was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi‘ite insurgency in the north.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Reporting by Jason Benham, Mohammed Mukhashaf, Dhuyazen Mukhashaf; Editing by Louise Ireland