New Gulf plan seeks 3-month power transfer in Yemen
SANAA (Reuters) - A Gulf Arab peace plan presented in Sanaa on Thursday calls for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to transfer power over three months, an official said, the latest effort to stop Yemen's descent into further violence and chaos.
Saleh's ruling party said it would respond within 24 hours, but aides to Saleh -- who sounded defiant in a speech on Wednesday -- said he seemed poised to accept the initiative.
Gulf Arab and Western states -- long-time backers of Saleh -- are trying to negotiate an orderly transition after three months of protests have brought his 32-year rule to the brink of collapse in a country where al Qaeda militants have re-established themselves in recent years.
A Yemeni government official told Reuters the revised GCC proposal would see Saleh announce his resignation to parliament one month after signing an agreement, then hand over power to his vice president.
Saleh would also appoint an opposition leader to run a new cabinet that would prepare for presidential elections two months later. The proposal envisages protesters winding down their activities and offers immunity from prosecution to Saleh, his family and aides -- defying street activists' demands.
"We welcome this new initiative and we will deal with it positively," an official said after Saleh met Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani.
According to the Gulf plan, the new unity cabinet would consist of members of the current ruling party (50 percent), members of the opposition coalition (40 percent), and other political groups (10 percent).
This might help Saleh supporters keep a majority, as the 10 percent from other groups might include recently resigned ruling party members.
The proposal also grants Saleh, his family and close aides immunity from legal prosecution, the Yemeni official said. Protesters have insisted on the right to prosecute Saleh but the opposition has given no clear view as to what it would accept.
Members of the opposition coalition, who also met Zayani and say they are still studying the proposal, said they were wary of loopholes that could keep Saleh, a shrewd politician, in office.
The ending of protests would be a major sticking point.
"That condition will be difficult to achieve," one opposition leader said. He said the opposition did not fully control the hundreds of thousands of people, many of them youth activists, who have taken to the streets.
The opposition leader said Saleh could use his ruling party's parliamentary majority to avoid standing down. Under Yemeni law, two-thirds of the parliament must accept a president's resignation.
"There need to be guarantees ... because the ruling party could reject his resignation, and then we would not get Saleh's departure," he said.
Earlier in April, a similar GCC initiative proposed that presidential powers be transferred to the vice president until an election. The opposition rejected it and Saleh, who officially accepted that proposal, has given mixed signals on his readiness to step down.
On Wednesday he vowed to stand firm against "conspiracies and coups." "Those who want power ... should do so through the ballot box," he said. "Change and departure will be through voting via the legal framework of the constitution."
Saleh has said he will not seek re-election when his term ends in 2013, and later promised to stand down this year after organising parliamentary and presidential elections.
But the opposition and protesters have little faith in his promises and want him to quit first.
"This speech is to raise spirits, but it's no longer logical because the people have had their say -- they say an immediate departure is necessary," said Sultan al-Atwani, the leader of the Nasserist party, part of the opposition coalition.
In a separate development, three Yemeni soldiers and one militant were killed on Thursday during clashes between troops and gunmen in the southern province of Lahj, a security source said.
TALKS DRAG, VIOLENCE FLARES
Yemeni officials expect a visit on Saturday from UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, though opposition figures said it was not clear if they would meet him.
As negotiations drag on, violence has increased. Protesters tested security forces' limits by marching past the defence and other ministries in Sanaa on Wednesday and burning tyres in the streets of Taiz, south of the capital.
The death toll has been rising. Six people died from their wounds after police opened fire at protests in Sanaa and Taiz on Tuesday, bringing the demonstrators' death toll to 123.
The potential for fractious Yemen to descend further into chaos or bloodshed has been a concern for Washington and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer.
Saleh has warned of chaos if he is forced out of office, suggesting there could be civil war and militants could benefit.
But the opposition, which includes the Islamist Islah party, says it could keep control better than Saleh and accuses him of making deals with militant groups in the past.
(Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Andrew Hammond and Tim Pearce)
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