SANAA, Yemen — Hundreds of thousands of rival protesters again took to the streets here as the country’s besieged president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, rejected international help to mediate a peaceful transfer of power.
“We derive our legitimacy from you [the Yemeni people], not from Qatar or any other party,” the president said in a speech to supporters today. “This is totally rejected and unacceptable.”
The president’s speech contradicted an earlier statement by Saba, the country’s state news agency, that the government welcomed a proposal from the Qatari government to mediate between the opposition and the government.
The proposal by Qatar outlined a plan to hand over power to a transitional council and called for elections to be held three months after Saleh’s departure.
“Political leadership was dismayed by the intentional leak of the proposal by the Qataris,” a government official told GlobalPost. “The idea of dialogue is for all factions to sit down and nail together a proposal. Instead, the [Gulf Cooperation Council] dictated a proposal without a dialogue.”
Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in what is now being called “Change Square” on Friday, reiterating their pledge to remain in the streets until the president unequivocally relinquished power. Just two miles away a large group of pro-government demonstrators held their own rally.
In Taiz, a southern city that has been the site of government violence in recent weeks, security forces again opened fire on thousands of protesters who were leaving Friday prayers, killing at least two and injuring hundreds. Fifteen anti-government protesters were killed in Taiz on Monday as security forces and pro-government thugs opened fire on demonstrators marching toward government buildings.
“Genocide is being committed against the people of Yemen,” said female activist Raqiqa Al-Kuhali in Taiz on Monday.
In Sanaa, however, violence against protesters has decreased now that the tented city in front of Sanaa University is under the protection of recently defected military personnel.
“Thank God we have been able to protect protesters from thug attacks since we were deployed here,” said Nabil Badil, an army officer loyal to Ali Muhsin, a major general who defected and has tasked his 1st armored division with protecting anti-government demonstrators.
Rebel soldiers have set up roadblocks surrounding the protest camp and deployed teams armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers to protect the encampment from possible tank attacks by forces still loyal to the president.
In the wake of growing violence at the hands of government forces, former allies of Saleh have one by one begun to drop their support. The United States, which had been cooperating with Saleh in its fight against regional Al Qaeda groups, indicated recently that they would no longer stand by Yemen’s longtime president and believed he should give up power.
U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal this week that the first installment of a previously approved $1 billion aid package had been frozen when protests first began sweeping across the country in February. The decision by the Obama administration to suspend the aid package put a spotlight on just how much the alliance with Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades but was a critical partner in the war on terror, had unraveled.
Recently leaked diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks have also revealed that a billionaire businessman, and prominent tribal leader, Hamid al-Ahmar, told U.S. officials in 2009 that he would work to instigate defections among the country’s military leadership.
“Removing Saleh from power, in a scenario that does not involve throwing the country into complete chaos, will be impossible without the support of the (currently skeptical) Saudi leadership and elements of the Yemeni military …” Ahmar said, according to the cable.
Those same cables revealed that U.S. officials had been aware of Yemen’s fragile political and economic climate but largely discounted the possibility that Saleh could be forced out.