Yemen opposition eyes transition as fears rise

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SANAA: An escalating anti-regime campaign was seeking a transition on Thursday rather than more concessions from Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as rival military units clashed for the second time this week.

Yemen’s disparate opposition brushed aside new concessions as having come too late and focused on working behind the scenes on a transition which could spare the country a brutal civil war, political sources said.

Ahead of another escalation on the Muslim weekly day of prayers and rest, Saleh urged his supporters to hold a mass show of support on Friday in a Sanaa square close to his presidential palace.

Even if deserted by longtime military, political, tribal and clerical backers, the veteran leader dubbed the event "Friday of Tolerance," countering the pro-change slogans of anti-regime demonstrators around the Arab world.

On Wednesday, parliament voted to pass a state of emergency declared by Saleh on March 18, just hours after regime loyalists gunned down more than 50 protesters outside their Sanaa University camp set up two months ago.

In theory, the measure outlaws demonstrations and would allow the regime to gag the media. On Wednesday, the Sanaa offices of pan-Arab news channel Al-Jazeera were shut down.

The opposition has said it will hold off until the following Friday, April 1, to march on the presidential palace for what many fear could prove a bloody final showdown.

Saleh, in power for three decades, has offered his foes a deal on forming a unity government, drawing up a new electoral law, holding a legislative poll, and his successor to be named by the end of 2011 by newly-elected MPs.

"But we don’t want any more concessions. We just want the president to leave, and quickly," Rashad Al-Sharaabi, a member of a youths’ committee which has been a key player behind the uprising, told AFP.

He said behind-the-scenes consultations were taking place for a peaceful transition of power. "We want a civil society, not a military regime," cautioned the activist.

On Thursday, fresh clashes in Mukalla, southeast Yemen, between the regular army and elite Republican Guard loyal to Saleh left three wounded, witnesses and medics said.

The fighting pitted soldiers under the orders of a regional commander who has rallied to the side of anti-Saleh protesters and the Republican Guards, witnesses said.

On Monday, two soldiers were killed as the rivals also clashed near a presidential palace in Mukalla.

With fears of violence on the rise, Britain announced on Wednesday it was withdrawing most staff from its embassy in Sanaa and "strongly urged" any nationals still in the Yemeni capital to leave.

Russia’s foreign ministry also advised all its citizens to immediately leave Yemen, which it said faced an "escalating trend."

Sources close to secret talks on a post-Saleh Yemen said General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, a key figure who has sided with the protesters, was leading efforts to form a transitional council grouping representatives from all sides.

The International Crisis Group think-tank said on Thursday "the political tide in Yemen has turned decisively against" Saleh, who would have to act swiftly to maneuver an honorable exit and prevent civil war.

"Prior to the events of 18 March, there was a chance for Saleh to negotiate and even lead a process of reform and peaceful transition of power. That opportunity is gone," the think-tank said, referring to the Sanaa bloodbath.

A peaceful transition could reassure Yemen’s mighty neighbour Saudi Arabia and Saleh’s allies in the United States, which have warned that turmoil could boost the presence of Al-Qaeda’s franchise already based in Yemen.

Apart from a southern secession campaign, the country also faces an on-off Shia revolt in the north that has dragged in Saudi Arabia.

Dubai police announced on Thursday that it has foiled a bid to smuggle 16,000 pistols from Turkey to Yemen’s northern province of Saada, the stronghold of the Shia Zaidi rebels.


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