SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen’s opposition signed a Gulf-brokered transition deal on Saturday that will ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power within a month, provided he ratifies the agreement as promised on Sunday.
Saleh, a shrewd political survivor who has outlasted previous challenges to his nearly 33-year rule, faces mounting diplomatic pressure to sign after backing out twice before over technical details at the last minute.
“We signed the initiative in the presence of envoys from the U.S., Britain, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council secretary-general Abdullatif al-Zayani,” the opposition leader, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
A Yemeni official earlier said Zayani, who heads the GCC bloc grouping Yemen’s wealthy Gulf Arab neighbors which have headed mediation efforts, was in Yemen to see the opposition sign, and that Saleh and the ruling party would sign on Sunday.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by al Qaeda’s Yemen wing, are keen to end the Yemeni stalemate to avert deeper chaos that could give one of the militant network’s most potent arms more room to thrive.
Washington has stepped up pressure on Saleh to sign and implement the deal, and President Barack Obama said in a speech on U.S. policy in the Arab world on Thursday that Saleh needed to “follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”
Saleh also appeared to be under pressure to sign ahead of a meeting of GCC foreign ministers expected on Sunday in Riyadh to discuss prospects for Yemen after Saleh failed to sign the deal last week in a last-minute reversal.
Protesters, frustrated that three months of daily rallies have failed to dislodge Saleh, want him out immediately in the Arabian Peninsula state, which is also facing revolts from northern Shi’ite rebels and southern separatists.
They have threatened to step up their campaign by marching on government buildings, a move that brought new bloodshed last week as security forces fired to stop them. Strikes have brought commerce to a halt in many cities.
On Saturday, 35 protesters were wounded as security forces confronted protesters at a university in the Red Sea port city of Hudaida, witnesses said. Dozens were suffering from the effects of teargas.
Saleh, who appeared willing to finally agree to hand over power despite months of resistance, nevertheless warned Yemen’s allies that al Qaeda could take over in a political and security vacuum after he steps down.
“If the system falls ... al Qaeda will capture Maarib, Hadramout, Shabwa, Abyan and al-Jouf (and) it will control the situation,” Saleh said, listing provinces where al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing has been active.
“This is the message that I send to our friends and brothers in the United States and the European Union ... The successor will be worse that what we have currently,” he said.
Saleh is a clever operator who has survived many tussles with rivals in the fractious Arabian Peninsula state, and has skillfully used patronage and favors to keep tribal and political backers loyal.
He called on Friday for early presidential elections, which he said was aimed at preventing bloodshed as protests raged on. Saleh has seen a wave of desertions, including from within Yemen’s military and political elite, since protests began.
“We welcome the Gulf initiative and we say that we will work with it in a positive way for the sake of our homeland (although) in reality it is a mere coup operation ... and part of foreign pressures and agendas,” Saleh said at a ceremony.
A civilian was shot dead on Friday as gunmen clashed with the army at security checkpoints around the flashpoint province of Abyan, where al Qaeda militants are active.
Yemen, where half the 23 million population owns a gun, has caused concern for regional stability among its Gulf neighbors, particularly top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States, which has seen Yemen as an ally against al Qaeda.
Writing by Firouz Sedarat and Cynthia Johnston; editing by Philippa Fletcher