Late hitch stalls signing of Yemen crisis pact
An aide to embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh said Yemen's political rivals have agreed to sign on Wednesday a Gulf-brokered plan to end bloody unrest, but the opposition expressed doubts about the deal.
Asked on Al-Arabiya television news network whether the agreement would be signed on Wednesday, Ahmed al-Sufi said: "Yes, it will be today" following "positive" and "important progress."
But parliamentary opposition spokesman Mohammed Qahtan said Saleh had backed out of signing the accord after a break in the impasse between the two sides had been reached on Tuesday night.
"If the initiative was unchanged" from its initial version, "we will sign," Qahtan said.
"We came to an agreement late Tuesday but this morning they changed their minds," Qahtan said, adding Saleh and his partisans "refuse" to sign it this way.
"The disagreement is on who will sign from the opposition," said Qahtan. However, "there's an agreement on the timeframe."
On the ground, most of Yemen's cities observed a complete strike on Wednesday morning as police fired shots into the the air in the town of Huta, in southern Lahij province, and in the Red Sea city of Al-Hudaydah, witnesses said.
Massive protests took place in Taez and Ibb, south of Sanaa, and Al-Hudaydah, witnesses said.
In Huta, where protesters blocked roads, residents said police fired into the air.
Yemen's southern cities of Aden, Lahij and Shabwa also went on strike Wednesday, according to residents there.
The impoverished but strategic Arabian Peninsula country has been gripped by protests since late January calling for the ouster of Saleh, who has been in power since 1978.
Security forces launched a deadly crackdown the protests, leaving at least 180 people dead, according to a toll compiled from reports by activists and medics.
Besides an Al-Qaeda resurgence, Yemen is battling a secessionist movement in the south and a Shiite rebellion in the north.
Saleh insists that, under the constitution, he should serve out his current term of office, which expires in 2013. Last Thursday, however, Washington called on him to sign the deal "now."
For weeks, the agreement has been held up by Saleh refusing to sign in his capacity as president. He has insisted on endorsing the deal only as leader of the ruling General People's Congress, contrary to the opposition's demands.
Talks are ongoing, said Qahtan, adding the opposition would meet Abdullatif al-Zayani, the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, later on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the spokesman for Saleh's party, Tareq al-Shami, had said: "We have discussed with.... Zayani the mechanism to implement a plan to end the crisis."
"This plan needs a time frame to implement it," said Shami.
On Friday, Qahtan declared the Gulf initiative was "dead" following the pullout of Qatar, whose prime minister had angered Sanaa by saying Saleh should go.
But Zayani returned to Sanaa on Saturday in an attempt to convince both sides to sign the initiative.
The six GCC states have proposed an exit plan that would see Saleh out of office within 30 days.
Under it, a government of national unity would be formed, Saleh would transfer power to his vice president and there would be an end to protests. In exchange, Saleh and his top aides would be granted immunity from prosecution.