President's offer triggers new protests in Yemen

September 13, 2011 - 12:40 PM
Mideast Yemen

A protestor, his face painted with the colors of Palestine, Yemen, and pre-Gadhafi Libya flags attends a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Sept. 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across Yemen on Tuesday to protest the latest attempt by the country's president to evade pressure to step down, as the U.N. called for an inquiry into the government's use of lethal force against protesters earlier this year.

The protests come one day after Ali Abdullah Saleh authorized his vice president to negotiate with the opposition on his behalf and sign a deal to transfer executive powers to him. However, Saleh retained the right to reject the deal in the end.

Protests Tuesday took place under the slogan: "No deal, no maneuvering, the president should leave." The opposition charges that Saleh's agreement is a tactic aimed at stalling and not a genuine move toward turning over power.

This prompted Yemen's Student Union and university professors to defy a call by the Education Ministry to resume classes, saying they would continue anti-Saleh protests instead .

Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, has maintained his grip on power though he is in Saudi Arabia, recuperating from wounds sustained in a June attack on his compound in the capital Sanaa.

The deal, drafted by Yemen's powerful Gulf neighbors, has Saleh transferring powers to his vice president, who would then be tasked with forming an broad-based transitional government ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections. Yemen's Western allies, including the United States and EU, have thrown their support behind the deal. The U.S. was once one of Saleh's main backers as an ally against al-Qaida militants.

Saleh has come close to signing several times, only to back away at the last minute, infuriating his opponents.

On Tuesday, a team of officials from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an international probe into the killings of hundreds of Yemeni protesters earlier this year, saying they were "met with excessive and disproportionate use of lethal force by the state".

According to Gulf-brokered deal, the president would be guaranteed immunity from investigations into the use of lethal force against protesters.

Yemen's ongoing political turmoil has destabilized the country, which is already the poorest in the Middle East.

Thousands of Yemenis took part Tuesday in the funeral procession of an influential tribal chief's son, who was assassinated Monday in Sanaa by masked gunmen still at large.

The tribal chief had recruited youth in the fight against militants with suspected links to al-Qaida, who overran parts of southern Yemen in April and May.

On Tuesday, military officials said militants attacked government forces in the southern city of Zinjibar, killing three soldiers and wounding five.

The officials were speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Witnesses say militants still control the center of Zinjibar, in Abyan province, and that the military is battling for control of eastern parts of the city.

Gov. Ahmed al-Majidi of Lahj province said militants have also established a presence in his area. Lahj is near Abyan in the south.

Yemen's military, backed by support from the United States and Saudi Arabia, has used ground attacks and airstrikes in its fight against militants.

The government acknowledged Tuesday that an airstrike last week on Jaar, in Abyan, killed seven civilians and 12 militants.

In a statement posted on militant online forums, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said the Jaar airstrike targeted two mosques, a hospital and a vegetable market, but denied its militants were killed.

"The holy warriors stress that they will not let these crimes go without punishment," the statement said.

The United States views al-Qaida's branch in Yemen as one of the most dangerous, holding its members responsible for a failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit in December 2009.

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Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.