Faced with mass demonstrations demanding an end to his 32-year rule, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is clinging to power in the poorest country in the Middle East, from which al Qaeda has planned attacks on the United States.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Monday invited government and opposition representatives to talks in Saudi Arabia, at a date yet to be set, with the United States pressing the veteran political survivor to negotiate with his opponents.
Saleh, who ignored a transition-of-power plan offered by the opposition on Saturday, accepted the Arab Gulf states’ invitation on Tuesday and urged the opposition to follow suit.
“I promise that we will make every effort to return things to normal through talks with rational people from the Joint Meetings Party,” he said, referring to the opposition coalition.
“We repeat our invitation to them to sit at the table of dialogue and we call for a restraint from violence.”
Aides to a prominent general, Ali Mohsen, who turned against Saleh last month, said he had also accepted the call for talks in Saudi Arabia. But the coalition was non-committal.
“We welcome the (GCC) position on respecting the Yemeni people’s choices and we will also welcome any efforts made for the sake of President Saleh’s speedy departure,” Joint Meetings Party coalition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri said.
The United States has long seen Saleh as a pivotal ally in its fight against al Qaeda. In return for billions of dollars in military aid, he has pledged to fight militants and allowed unpopular U.S. air strikes on their camps.
But on Monday U.S. officials said Washington was ratcheting up pressure on Saleh to work towards a power transition plan.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon said the United States was calling for a negotiated transition in Yemen “as quickly as possible.”
“Obviously the situation right now is a difficult one. The longer it festers, the more difficult it becomes,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.
Three people died and 15 were wounded on Tuesday when Saleh backers clashed with protesters, the defence ministry said. General Mohsen said the incident was an attempt to assassinate him.
A statement said Mohsen came out to meet tribal mediators sent by Saleh and snipers then opened fire. “The issue appeared to be a trick to assassinate Ali Mohsen, intermediaries and a group of tribal sheikhs,” it said.
General Mohsen later issued a statement accusing military and security forces loyal to Saleh of undertaking a “constant escalation aimed at provoking … the military forces that support the youth movement (protesters).”
Some diplomats in Saudi Arabia have suggested Riyadh wants Mohsen to replace Saleh, though the general has said he is not interested in taking power. Civil society opposition groups say Mohsen, 70, an Islamist, is tainted by his kinship and long-time association with the veteran ruler.
A 2005 U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks said: “Ali Mohsen would likely face domestic as well as international opposition if he sought the presidency … Yemenis generally view him as cynical and self-interested.” Reuters