March 31, 2011 / 1:23 PM / 6 years ago

Yemen protesters remember dead with talks stalled

5 Min Read

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemenis on Thursday commemorated dozens of people killed in weeks of street protests demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh resign, while efforts continued to negotiate his exit from power within the next year.

Weeks of protests in Sanaa and elsewhere have brought Saleh's 32-year-old rule to the verge of collapse but the United States and Saudi Arabia, an important financial backer of its turbulent, poverty-stricken neighbor where al Qaeda militants flourish, are worried over who might succeed their ally.

A senior Western diplomat said Saleh, whose comments have at times sounded like he was preparing to leave office soon and at others as if he intends to see out his term, appeared to be agonizing over his options.

"My guess is that he is very torn about all of these things and that what you hear from him is functions of inner turmoil," he told Reuters.

On Tuesday, Saleh held talks with Mohammed al-Yadoumi, head of the Islamist Islah party, once a partner in his government. Saleh was looking for avenues to stay on as president while new parliamentary and presidential elections are organised by the end of the year, an opposition source said.

The talks have stalled and it is not clear how they can restart. Saudi authorities have deflected Yemeni government efforts to involve them in mediation. Protesters camped outside Sanaa University since early February are insisting that Saleh, who has said he will not run for re-election in 2013, leave soon.

Groups calling themselves the Youth Revolution said on Wednesday they wanted corruption trials, the return of "stolen public and private property," release of political detainees, dissolution of the security forces and the closure of the Information Ministry -- steps taken in Tunisia and Egypt after similar uprisings removed entrenched leaders.

On Thursday, the protest swelled to tens of thousands who came to remember about 82 protesters killed so far, including 52 shot by snipers on March 18. "The people want the butcher to face trial!" they chanted.

Some wore white tunics with the words "future martyr" written on them to stress their resolve to wait Saleh out.

"The best scenario would be that there is an agreement and that the two parties go into the parliament and begin the implementation of their agreement," the diplomat said.

The opposition says it believes Saleh is maneuvering to avoid curbs on his family's future political activities and secure a guarantee they will not be prosecuted for corruption.

Security forces fired tear gas to put down a protest rally on Thursday in the northwestern province of Hajjah, witnesses and opposition sources told Reuters. At least two protesters were wounded by gunfire, they said.

Tribe members opposed to Saleh attacked three electricity pylons in the central province of Maarib, triggering power outages of up to two hours in parts of the capital and across most of the country, officials said.

Bulwark of Stability

Washington has long regarded Saleh as a bulwark of stability who can keep al Qaeda from extending its foothold in the Arabian Peninsula country, which many see as close to disintegration.

Yemen's al Qaeda wing claimed responsibility for a foiled attempt in late 2009 to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit, and for U.S.-bound explosive packages sent in October 2010.

On Wednesday, al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior figure in the group's Yemen wing, welcomed revolts across the Arab world which he said would give Islamists greater scope to speak out.

U.S. officials have said they like working with Saleh, who has allowed unpopular U.S. air strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda. Saleh, in power since 1978, has said the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa was involved in talks to find a solution.

Saleh has talked of civil war if he steps down without ensuring that power passes to "safe hands." He has warned against a coup after senior generals were among allies to turn against him in the past week.

Opposition parties say they can handle the militant issue better than Saleh, who they say has made deals with militants in the past to avoid provoking Yemen's Islamists.

"I think Yemenis would be capable of freeing Yemen of terror within months," Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, a key tribal figure who belongs to the Islah party, told Reuters this week.

Al-Ahmar said Western powers were effectively prolonging Saleh's time in office through their public comments expressing concern over who could succeed him.

"We don't need that much support. But support like what was done in Egypt would be enough to finish things," he said, referring to U.S. comments in favor of protesters shortly before Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February.

Additional reporting by Cynthia Johnston; writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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