RIYADH (Reuters) - Gulf Arab countries have stepped up their push for Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power, pressuring him and opposition representatives to meet to negotiate an orderly transition.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets demanding an end to Saleh’s 32 years as leader of the poorest country in the Middle East, where he has struggled to quell a northern Shi’ite rebellion, a southern separatist movement and a resurgent wing of al Qaeda.
A proposal last week by Saudi Arabia, Saleh’s main financial backer until now, and other Gulf states for talks appeared to be in jeopardy Friday, when Saleh lashed out in fury at Qatar’s prime minister for suggesting that mediation would lead to Saleh standing down. Saleh called it “belligerent intervention.”
But foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — gathered in the Saudi capital presented a united front Sunday.
In a joint statement, they said Saleh’s government and the opposition should meet soon under GCC sponsorship, but gave no date.
They said a key principle of the meeting should be “the formation of a national unity government under the leadership of the opposition which has the right to form committees ... to draw up a constitution and hold elections.”
Long regarded by the West as a vital ally against al Qaeda militants, Saleh has warned of civil war and the break-up of Yemen if he is forced to leave power before organising new parliamentary and presidential elections over the next year.
But the killing of more than 100 protesters by security forces has begun to convince countries of the region that Saleh is now an obstacle to stability in a country that overlooks a shipping lane carrying over 3 million barrels of oil a day.
Analysts say that both Saudi Arabia and United States are now keen to arrange a quick exit.
Although Saleh had early last week accepted a GCC proposal to hold talks with the opposition, it was not clear whether the renewed push would work. The opposition has also set tough conditions for a meeting, diplomatic sources say.
Gulf officials told Reuters Wednesday that the GCC had put together a detailed proposal that involved a governing council grouping all the various political parties and tribes ruling Yemen for up to three months, and that names were being circulated of figures who could head the council.
But diplomats familiar with the negotiations who spoke to Reuters last week questioned whether a deal was anywhere close to being struck.
In recent weeks, talks that included the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa became bogged down over Saleh’s demand for assurances that he and members of his family would not face prosecution.
Sunday’s GCC proposal calls for Saleh to transfer power to his vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi “smoothly and safely” so that Yemen would not “slide into chaos and violence.”
Some 40 percent of Yemen’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day and one-third face chronic hunger. Exasperation with state repression and rampant corruption have poured fuel on the fire of the pro-democracy movement.
Violent clashes have continued almost daily with at least 27 people killed over the past week. Security forces have used live ammunition and tear gas against the protesters.
Writing by Reed Stevenson; Editing by Kevin Liffey