SANAA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Yemeni worshippers gathered in Sanaa for Friday prayers, demanding Ali Abdullah Saleh be tried for alleged use of violence against demonstrators, as a U.N. envoy struggled to reach a deal to ease the president out of office.
As protesters marking the “Friday of Female Martyrs of the Revolution” held prayers in the capital’s Sixty Street, U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar met opposition officials to try and broker a deal to end months of protests that have paralyzed the country.
“The martyrs wrote with blood, Saleh must be tried,” the crowds chanted before the Friday prayers began.
Armed soldiers loyal to a dissident general who defected to the opposition earlier this year guarded demonstrators as they filled the main street, where a Muslim preacher called on the Arab League to impose sanctions on Saleh and recognize a council set up by the opposition as a representative body.
“We urge the Arab League to freeze Yemen’s membership, as it did with the Syrian regime, and recognize the National Council as the legitimate representative,” the preacher said.
Opposition leaders met Benomar again on Friday after talks late into the night on Thursday, but an opposition official said there was no progress on efforts to get Saleh to sign the Gulf initiative power transfer deal, designed to remove him after 33 years in office.
The Gulf initiative grants Saleh immunity from prosecution and allows him to keep his wealth.
The opposition says Saleh has been demanding changes to the initiative that would effectively allow him to retain most of his powers during a transitional period until new elections, a demand rejected by demonstrators and the opposition.
The stand-off has pushed Yemen to the brink of civil war and allowed Islamist militants to seize control of swathes of territory in the impoverished Arab country bordering Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.
The U.N. envoy flew to Yemen last Thursday to follow up on a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last month calling on Saleh to immediately sign the initiative.
The opposition official said Benomar was expected to travel to Saudi Arabia on Saturday and return to Sanaa before he leaves the country to submit a report on his mission to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
“The negotiations being conducted by Benomar do not concern us,” said Anwar al-Sharaabi, a demonstrator at the Sixty street told Reuters. “Yet, it will not succeed,” he added.
The Sanaa protest comes a week after at least four women were killed in the city of Taiz, some 200 km (120 miles) south of Sanaa, by government forces who shelled the ancient city during clashes with armed tribesmen.
An opposition website quoted the director of a Taiz hospital where victims of the violence had been taken as saying 154 people had been killed and 2,000 wounded in the city since the uprising began in February. The doctor said 51 people died in the last month alone in Taiz.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Sophie Hares