Yemen: President Saleh Refuses to Sign Deal and Step Down

Yemen: President Saleh Refuses to Sign Deal and Step Down
Updated: May 23, 2011. 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time

Filty water sloshed through the streets of Sana’a on Monday as a fierce rainstorm swept over the capital. But the rolling of thunder was soon competing with the booming of heavy artillery and the rat-tat-tat of machine gun-fire as security forces in the east of the capital battled with fighters from Yemen’s most powerful tribe.

The prospect of civil war seemed to rear its head even more insistently as the republican guard of President Ali Abdullah Saleh used bullets and rocket propelled greandes to pound the residence of Sadeq al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribe and staunch supporter of the opposition. A stray missile thudded into the nearby Yemenia Airlines headquarters setting it ablaze while hundreds of journalists scrambled for cover in the basement of the state-owned Saba News Agency office as the violence raged on into the afternoon.

The tribal-military standoff then began to spread its way throughout the city. In retaliation for the assault on their leaders abode, armed Hasid fighters began encircling and attacking government buildings. Smoke billowed from the interior minister after a horde of men apparently fired anti-aircraft missiles at it. Tribal mediators eventually managed to stem the gun fire but not before seven soldiers and two civilians had died in the fearsome clashes.

The fighting was the fiercest yet between the pro- and anti-Saleh camps and came a day after President Saleh backed away from a promise to sign a Gulf-States-brokered deal that would end his 33 years in power. The stalemate prompted regional leaders late Sunday to abandon their efforts at mediating a solution to Yemen’s crisis.

Sunday was also supposed to have been a day of celebration in Yemen, marking the 21st anniversary of the unification of country’s north and south. But with Saleh once again reneging on an apparent agreement and the tribal fighting, no one was in the to celebrate. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis had come out onto the dusty streets of the capital Sana’a, only for their deafening calls for the president’s departure to be thwarted once more by Saleh who, for the third time in two weeks, refused to sign the deal.

Despite complaining that it was as a “mere coup operation,” Saleh had promised to sign the Gulf plan, which would see him exchange power for immunity, on Sunday. But in characteristic fashion, he balked at the last moment, claiming that he wanted the opposition who had inked the deal the day before to re-sign it at a public ceremony at his palace. He also suggested that the result of the impasse could be civil war — and that if that happened, it would be the fault of the opposition parties. “The opposition coalition will be held responsible if they escalate street protests and drag the country into a civil war … they will be held responsible for the blood that has been and may be shed during the next days,” Saleh said in a speech on Sunday. See pictures of clashes in Yemen.>
Opposition officials refused to attend the palace ceremony because they’d already signed the deal; they claimed that Saleh was intent on forcing them to sign an amended version at the last minute.

“We are ready to go to the moon if he is really serious. But it is becoming clear that he is backing away,” said opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri, addressing Saleh’s insistence that the opposition attend the signing.

According to the state news agency Saba, Saleh phoned the Gulf leaders Sunday night to “renew his readiness to sign the initiative.” But it was too little, too late. Hours after the call, the Gulf mediators announced they were bailing on their monthlong effort to ease the President out of office, in a move many fear may be the end of the road for a diplomatic solution to Yemen’s mounting political tumult.