Gunmen claiming to be loyal to President Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen laid siege Sunday afternoon to the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Sana’a, trapping ambassadors of the United States, Britain and the European Union, and those from the six members states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Also trapped inside the UAE embassy was the secretary general of the GCC, Abdullatif al-Zayani.
The envoys were waiting for word about whether Mr. Saleh would, as promised, sign a historic GCC-negotiated pact under which he would end 33 years of authoritarian rule by leaving office within 30 days, with full immunity assured. If positive word were received, they had planned to go to the presidential palace from the UAE Embassy.
In light of the siege, an Al Arabiya correspondent in Sana’a reported that the chances of Mr. Saleh signing the pact on Sunday were virtually zero.
It was unclear if violence was involved in the siege of the UAE embassy. The six members of the GCC are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Earlier on Sunday, in a clear escalation in the Yemeni situation, thousands of Saleh loyalists took to the streets Sunday morning in what seemed to be a new obstacle to the reconciliation process.
They blocked many major roads in many cities across the country, according to Al Arabiya’s correspondent Hamoud Mnasar, in protest at the GCC initiative which is due to be supposedly signed by Mr. Saleh himself today.
An Al Arabiya correspondent in Sana’a reported that the signing of the agreement was shrouded in secrecy with journalists banned from attending and covering the event.
An opposition source who declined to be named told Al Arabiya that the initiative was signed at 7 p.m. local time at the house of opposition leader Mohammed Salem Basindwa.
The source added that ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Arab Emirates attended the signing of the deal.
President Saleh is expected to sign the deal on Sunday when Yemen celebrates its 21st National Day since a 1990 unity agreement between the country’s north and south.
Yemeni opposition figure Ahmad Mohammad Abd El-Ghani told Al Arabiya that the ongoing developments in Yemen were “the cornerstone of a modern civilian state, which the Yemenis aspire to have.”
“The uprising reveals that the suffering of the Yemeni people was bigger than others imagined,” Mr. Abd El-Ghani added.
The embattled President Saleh had earlier slammed the Gulf initiative that would end months of deadly anti-regime protests as a “coup,” and warned that the fall of his regime would allow Al Qaeda to flourish and perhaps even take over his country.
“The initiative is in fact purely a coup operation but we will deal positively with it for the sake of the motherland,” President Saleh said of the transition plan of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
He said on Friday that he would sign the agreement on Sunday, but his remarks on Saturday once against spawned speculation that Mr. Saleh might renege. He has made similar moves on at least two previous occasions, frustrating GCC leaders as well as pro-democracy Yemenis who want an end to Mr. Saleh’s authoritarian presidency.
He also warned the United States and the European Union that Al Qaeda would benefit from the departure of his regime.
“The departure of the regime ... means the departure of Yemeni unity and the republic,” he said.
“If the regime goes, Al Qaeda will flourish in (the provinces of) Hadhramaut and Shabwa and Abyan, and the situation will be worse,” he said, addressing “our friends in the United States and the European Union.”
Under the GCC initiative, President Saleh would hand power to the vice president 30 days after the agreement is signed, and he and his aides would be granted immunity from prosecution by parliament.
A national unity government led by a prime minister from the opposition would be formed, and a presidential election would follow 60 days after his departure.
On Friday Mr. Saleh told thousands of his supporters that he wants an early presidential election to end a political crisis. “We call for an early presidential election in a democratic way, in order to avoid bloodshed,” he said.
President Saleh gave no details on when or how the election would take place, but he said that the early election should be held in a “smooth and democratic way.” Neither did he say if he would contest in such an election.
Mr. Saleh, 65, has been under growing pressure from Gulf Arab and Western diplomats seeking his signature to a power transition deal, twice derailed since April.
A Yemeni opposition official said Thursday that a Gulf mediator confirmed that Mr. Saleh would on Sunday sign the deal forged by Yemen’s oil-exporting neighbors, who hope it will end months of protests that have paralyzed Yemen’s already faltering economy.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by Al Qaeda’s Yemen wing, are keen to end the Yemeni stalemate to avert deeper chaos that could give one of the militant network’s most potent arms more room to thrive.
Washington has increased pressure on Mr. Saleh to sign and implement the deal, and President Barack Obama said in a speech on US policy in the Arab world on Thursday that Mr. Saleh needed to “follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”
Pressure was also mounting on Yemen from its wealthy Gulf Arab neighbors, who said their foreign ministers would meet on Sunday to discuss the crisis but made no mention in their statement of a signing ceremony.
“The ministers will discuss in their meeting the results of the latest visit of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s secretary general to Sana’a over the Gulf initiative to resolve the crisis in Yemen,” the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council said.
Protesters, frustrated their daily rallies have failed to dislodge Mr. Saleh who has ruled for nearly 33 years, want him out immediately in the Arabian Peninsula 24-million-people state, which is also facing revolts from northern Shiite rebels and southern separatists.
They have threatened to step up their campaign by marching on government buildings, a move that brought new bloodshed last week as security forces fired to stop them. Strikes have brought commerce to a halt in many cities.
Mr. Saleh, who has outmaneuvered previous attempts to challenge his power, indicated in April he would sign the Gulf-brokered deal, but refused to put his name to it in the final hours.
He said at the time he would only sign in his capacity as ruling party leader, not as president.
On Wednesday, the sides agreed again in principle to the deal, with minor changes on who would sign and in what capacity. Mr. Saleh was due to sign in a dual capacity as party leader and president, according to the opposition.
But the deal broke down over who would sign it from the opposition side. Mr. Saleh pushed for its leftist rotating head, Yassin Noman, to be the main opposition signatory.
The opposition preferred Mohammed Basindwa, an opposition figure tipped as a possible interim prime minister, sources close to the talks said.
The opposition, which includes both Islamists and leftists, eventually agreed to have Mr. Noman as the first opposition signer while keeping Mr. Basindwa on the list of additional signatories. President Saleh refused and the deal fell through, the sources said.
The ruling party later said President Saleh was willing to sign but wanted to deal only with “legally recognized parties” represented in parliament.
(Ammar Ben Aziz, a senior editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: Ammar.firstname.lastname@example.org. Mustapha Ajbaili, an editor at Al Arabiya English can be reached at: Mustapha.email@example.com)