In reversal, Saleh opts to stay in Yemen

December 31, 2011 - 3:08 PM
Mideast Yemen

Yemeni soldiers and officers march during a rally demanding reforms and dismissal of a senior official over alleged corruption in Taiz, Yemen, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011. Arabic on the banners, center, reads, "take from me the rifle and give me the civil state," and at right, "with our standing against corruption, we will build army to protect the country." The son of Yemen's outgoing president is leading a crackdown to purge the Republican Guard, which he commands, of any rebellious officers found to be siding with anti-government protesters, a military official said Saturday. (AP Photo/Anees Mahyoub)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) โ€” Yemen's outgoing president decided to stay in the country, reversing plans to leave, his ruling party said Saturday, in an apparent attempt to salvage his control over the regime, which has appeared to unravel in the face of internal revolts and relentless street protests.

In a sign of the fraying, the son and nephew of President Ali Abdullah Saleh launched a crackdown on suspected dissidents within the ranks of the elite security services they command, officials within the services said. The Republic Guard, led by the son, and Central Security, led by the nephew, have been the main forces used in trying to suppress the uprising against Saleh's rule the past year.

Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis marched in the streets of Sanaa and other cities on Saturday, demanding that Saleh be put on trial for the deaths of protesters killed in the crackdown since February.

"We will not let you escape," protesters chanted, holding up posters of the president with a noose around his neck.

Saleh signed a power transfer agreement in early November that was meant to ease him out of power after nearly 33 years of rule in hopes of calming the turmoil that has shaken this impoverished Arab nation for months. Under the accord, Saleh handed over all his authorities to his vice president and committed to step down formally once parliament grants him immunity from prosecution.

But opponents say he has tried since then to maintain his influence through loyalists in his ruling party and through the security forces commanded by his family. His People's Congress Party retains considerable power as part of a power-sharing government with the opposition, and critics say it has worked to undermine Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Meanwhile, protests have swelled after organizers rejected the accord because of the provision granting Saleh immunity. In recent weeks, the unrest has expanded with strikes breaking out within multiple government institutions and within units of the regular military demanding the removal of Saleh loyalists.

Hundreds of men in military uniform marched on Saturday through the southern city of Taiz, a center of the uprising, calling for trials of top commanders over the killings of protesters. Some renegade units in other parts of the military have even locked their commanders out of military installations and demanded the removal of officers accused of corruption or involvement in the deadly crackdown.

Saleh's flip-flop on leaving the country was the latest show of the mercurial way he has handled the crisis since it erupted.

Last weekend, he told reporters he would travel to the United States for a period to help bring calm to his nation. But on Saturday, he met with figures from the People's Congress Party and decided to stay.

"It is not possible in any way, shape or form to allow the collapse of state establishments and institutions that have been built over the last 49 years," Saleh said in a statement addressing the new threats.

He did not mention his plans to stay in Yemen. But tribal chief Sheik Mohammed al-Shayef, who is also a leading member of Saleh's People's Congress Party, said separately that the president had decided to remain because of the unrest, which al-Shayef blamed on the opposition and said was a violation of the power-transfer agreement.

"Dangerous developments have led to this decision" to stay, al-Shayef said. "It is in the interest of Yemen that Saleh remains in here."

Washington has been hesitant to allow Saleh to enter the United States, wary of being seen to give refuge to a leader considered by many of his people to have blood on his hands. That may have played a major part in Saleh's reversal. But the president likely also wants to be present to direct his loyalists and put pressure on Hadi and the unity government, said Abdel-Bari Taher, a political analyst said.

"He won't let the new government work without interruptions," said Taher. But "eventually, things are going to get out of control ... The strikes and government concessions only mean that Saleh's regime will eventually lose its share in power."

The Republican Guard and Central Security forces, the best trained and armed security forces, have so far not suffered significant defections to the opposition, as have regular military units, making them a major cornerstone for Saleh's control.

But with more frequent and serious acts of rebellion breaking out in other parts of the security services, Saleh's son Ahmed has led an internal sweep to prevent any outbreak within the Republican Guard, said a military official. Dozens of Guard members have been arrested in recent weeks on suspicion of opposition sympathies, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to reveal the internal workings.

The official said Ahmed warned at a Guard meeting over the past week against "copying" the actions of others. Loyalists are searching units, barracks, and have banned the use of cell phones inside the camp, the official said.

"We will not permit copying here. Force will be the way to deal with any protest," the official quoted Saleh's son as saying.

A similar sweep has taken place in search of rebellious soldiers within the Central Security forces, led by Saleh's nephew, Yahia, according to a Central Security official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secretive nature of the security measures.

Protests within government institutions and the military have forced the unity government to make significant concessions to oust Saleh loyalists.

On Saturday, the defense minister ordered the removal of a longtime Saleh confident within the armed forces, Ali al-Shater, known as one of the regime's strongmen. Protests by subordinates accused al-Shater of corruption and using his connections with the president to illegally amass wealth.

The political turmoil this past year in Yemen has emboldened even prisoners, who attempted to escape from jail in the southern province of Dhamar, 100 km south of Sanaa, just two weeks after they rioted, demanding better treatment.

Three prisoners were shot dead and 10 others wounded during the attempted escape, a security official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

A week earlier, employees of the national airline, Yemenia Airways, walked off their jobs demanding dismissal of the director, Saleh's son-in-law, charging him with plundering the company's assets and driving it into bankruptcy. The government gave in to the demands and replaced him.

Meanwhile, Saleh's relatives appeared to be hedging their bets. An official in the Congress Party and a port official said the a ship belonging to the nephew Saleh and Saleh's son left for the United Arab Emirates carrying rare animals, Arabian horse and antiquities that had been kept in the family's palaces in Sanaa.