Yemen opposition, VP strike a deal
Sana'a - The vice president and parliamentary opposition members struck a deal on Monday to try to ease Yemen's political crisis, as young protesters pushed for a transitional ruling council within 24 hours.
With security deteriorating in the south of the country, meanwhile, the army kept up its battle against al-Qaeda suspects in the city of Zinjibar where more than 100 combatants have reportedly been killed in the past two weeks.
Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi and the parliamentary opposition, at a meeting in Sana'a, reached a reconciliation agreement, opposition spokesperson Mohammed Qahtan told AFP.
"We agreed to calm the situation in terms of security and media campaigns, in a first step towards reviving the political process and meeting the aspirations of all Yemenis," said Qahtan, adding the two sides would meet again.
Political sources in Sana'a said the dialogue could aim to revive a Gulf-brokered power transfer plan, which President Ali Abdullah Saleh who is hospitalised in Saudi Arabia has refused to sign.
They said Hadi was under pressure from the United States, Europe and Gulf states to move toward a transition deal as uncertainty persists over the health of the president.
Yemeni authorities have said that Saleh, wounded in a June 3 bomb blast in the mosque of his presidential compound, would address the nation "very soon", although an informed Yemeni source in Riyadh said he was in poor health.
Gulf Arab foreign ministers, who suspended their mediation efforts on Yemen on May 23, are set to meet on Tuesday.
Saleh has steadfastly refused to sign the initiative that would see him transfer power to his deputy, Hadi, within 30 days in return for immunity from prosecution.
Activists of the "Youth Revolution" movement, in a statement, on Monday urged Hadi to "clarify his position in the coming 24 hours and [state] whether or not he will take part in the transitional council."
"We will work with all forces to form the council in the hours that follow the ultimatum given to Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi," they said, adding the council would lead Yemen for a maximum nine months of transitional rule.
The activists, who have been protesting on the streets against Saleh's 33-year-long autocratic rule since January, said the council would "appoint a nationalist and compatible figure to form a government of technocrats".
They also called for the dissolution of parliament and Yemen's consultative council, for the formation of a committee to draw up a new constitution, and for dates to hold a referendum on the constitution and for elections.
The protest movement said it held Hadi responsible for the violence sweeping Yemen at a time of political turmoil.
A military official said on Monday that at least 80 members of the security forces have been killed in clashes with suspected al-Qaeda gunmen in Zinjibar over the past two weeks.
Sixty al-Qaeda militants, among them local leaders, have also died, he said, since gunmen seized control of much of Zinjibar in late May.
Security officials say the militants are al-Qaeda fighters but the political opposition accuses the government of embattled Saleh of inventing a jihadist threat to head off Western pressure on his three-decade rule.
Many have fled
According to military officials, al-Qaeda fighters have besieged the base of the army's 25th mechanised brigade in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province. Nearly 4 000 soldiers remain in the base.
"We are locked in violent battles with criminals and assailants belonging to al-Qaeda... We will not surrender. We will fight till the end," the commander of the brigade, General Mohammed al-Somali, told AFP by telephone.
"The army does not want to enter Zinjibar because they will become easy targets for al-Qaeda gunmen, deployed in the streets across the city," said Abyan's deputy governor Ahmed al-Rahawi.
He said the extremists had seized weapons from the security headquarters when they took over Zinjibar, including heavy equipment such as tanks and military vehicles.
Pakistani, Libyan and Saudi nationals figure among the fighters, said Rahawi, adding that more than 20 000 people had fled the city.
Yemen is the home of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQIP), an affiliate of the slain Osama bin Laden's militant network. The group is blamed for anti-US plots including trying to blow up a US-bound aircraft on Christmas Day in 2009.