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Opponents fear Yemen’s president may renege on exit plan

He seems poised to stay in power

Protesters in Yemen marched yesterday in the city of Sana, demanding the prosecution of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s long-time ruler.
Protesters in Yemen marched yesterday in the city of Sana, demanding the prosecution of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s long-time ruler.(MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

SANA, Yemen - Suspicions are mounting in Yemen that outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh is trying to wiggle out of a US-backed deal meant to bring his 33-year, autocratic rule to an end.

Both opposition leaders and officials close to the president said yesterday that they remain unconvinced that Saleh is serious about leaving power. They fear he will try to use the unstable country’s continued unrest to keep his seat on the grounds that Yemen’s active Al Qaeda branch will step up operations if he leaves.

In November, following 10 months of mass street protests calling for his ouster, Saleh signed a deal by Yemen’s powerful Gulf neighbors and backed by the United States, agreeing to pass power to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes he committed while in office.

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Six weeks later, he remains president, Yemeni state media still speak of him as leader of the nation, and his allies frequently hinder the work of a new unity government sworn in by his vice president.

“The president is basically not convinced that he has to leave power, so he will resist with all his remaining force,’’ said a ruling party figure in Saleh’s last government who was close to the president. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Adding further fuel to the concerns over the past week, Saleh changed his plans to travel to the United States. Mediators have been saying for weeks that he would seek medical care in the United States for continued treatment of wounds sustained in a June attack at his palace. In late December, Saleh said he would go to help calm the turmoil in his country. Then on Saturday, he announced he would stay.

Saleh’s request for a visa put US officials in a bind. Allowing him in would open them to criticism from protesters who want Saleh to stand trial in Yemen for deadly crackdowns that have killed hundreds of protesters. Refusing him entry, however, would be hard to explain since he remains a US ally. Washington says it is still considering whether to grant it.

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On Wednesday, a leader in Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress party said Saleh had decided to remain in Yemen in response to concerns that his departure could be bad for Yemen and the ruling party.

The opposition accused Saleh of stalling, recalling how for months he repeatedly agreed then refused to sign the Gulf proposal before he ultimately signed.

“Saleh is repeating the scene from the past when he refused to sign the proposal,’’ opposition leader Mohammed Sabri said. “Today he is trying to get out of carrying out the proposal and transferring power.’’

The United States has long considered Yemen a necessary if not entirely reliable ally in the fight against the country’s active Al Qaeda branch and has provided Yemeni antiterrorism forces with funds and training.

Yemeni officials said Saleh is seeking to preserve his rule by using the same scare tactic he has used for decades: telling the United States and Saudi Arabia that Al Qaeda will have a freer hand to operate on Yemeni soil if he leaves.

Al Qaeda remains active in Yemen. Military officials said four soldiers and six militants were killed in new clashes yesterday near the city of Zinjibar.

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The militants took advantage of chaos early in the anti-Saleh uprising to overrun Zinjibar and a number of other towns. Government troops have been fighting to dislodge them since.

Under the Gulf initiative, presidential elections are scheduled Feb. 21 and Saleh is forbidden from running.