Yemen president orders talks on deal to end crisis

SANAA, Yemen – Yemen’s president, hospitalized in Saudi Arabia after an attack nearly a month ago on his palace, has instructed his deputy to hold talks with political opponents on a deal to transfer power and end the nation’s spiraling political crisis, his foreign minister said Wednesday. The opposition, wary after numerous pledges, dismissed the announcement.

Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the foreign minister, spoke from neighboring Saudi Arabia after a quick visit with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was badly burned and suffered other wounds in the June 3 attack on his compound in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

Nearly five months of protests by crowds calling for his ouster have left Saleh clinging to power. Defections by key allies and immense international pressure have failed to push him to negotiate an end to his nearly 33 years in power.

Saleh’s Saudi hosts are among a group of six nations in the Gulf seeking to persuade him to step down, though he has held onto power during his absence through his sons and other relatives, some of whom command military units. But recent days have seen Islamic militants – some believed to have links to al-Qaida – seizing upon the growing chaos to take over entire towns in southern Yemen.Pressure is mounting for a resolution of the crisis.

“The president directed his deputy and the government to begin dialogue with the other parties in the opposition in accordance with the Gulf initiative and the latest U.N. Security Council statement,” al-Qirbi said on Yemeni television.

The Security Council has pressed for inclusive political dialogue.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council first proposed a deal for transferring power months ago. In return for stepping down, Saleh and his family would get immunity from prosecution. Saleh promised at least three times to sign the deal but each time balked at the last minute.

In response to Wednesday’s announcement, the opposition said that at this point, anything less than an immediate transfer of power would fall short of their demands.

“Yemen can’t take anymore maneuvering or declarations to waste time,” said opposition spokesman Mohammed Qahtan. “The economic and security conditions are very serious and what is required first is an immediate decision to begin transfer of power and then dialogue can come.”

Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been acting as president in Saleh’s absence, and had met with the opposition before. However, hard-liners in Saleh’s party had refused to discuss any transition of power in the absence of the longtime president.

Saleh had been expected to address his people, and officials said he may speak by Thursday. But the Yemeni health minister, who also visited Saleh in Saudi Arabia, said only that the president would appear to the media “soon,” without naming a date.

The minister, Abdul-Karim Rafei, said Saleh was in good health, but didn’t elaborate.

It is not clear when – or if – he will return, deepening uncertainty in the poor nation at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged a move forward, regardless of Saleh’s anticipated speech.

“Considering that he was supposed to sign it (the GCC agreement) weeks ago and backed away, it’s difficult to predict what he’ll announce tomorrow. I understand there was some violence overnight in Yemen. That’s discouraging news. It’s important that Yemen move forward no matter what President Saleh may say.”