Saleh rival says he was target of assassination attempt

3 dead in clashes in Yemen; expert: Red Sea state could be battleground for proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
April 6, 2011 02:09
4 minute read.
Anti-government protesters gather in Yemen

Yemen protests 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer)

 
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Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh urged his opponents Tuesday to join talks to end a two-monthold political crisis as fresh clashes erupted between his troops and protesters seeking to finish his 32-year rule.

Three people died and 15 were wounded in the capital Sanaa Tuesday when Saleh supporters clashed with protesters and an army unit defending them, the Defense Ministry said.

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A Saleh opponent said Tuesday’s clashes between Saleh supporters and an army unit defending protesters demanding his ouster was a government attempt to assassinate Ali Mohsen, a key general who turned against the president last month.

“The issue appeared to be a trick to assassinate Ali Mohsen, intermediaries and a group of tribal sheikhs,” a statement from Mohsen’s office said, referring to tribal chiefs the government sent to mediate with the general.

Tuesday’s clashes came a day after 21 people were killed by security forces and armed men in civilian clothes fired on protesters in Taiz, south of Sanaa, and the Red Sea port of Hudaida.

With pressure mounting on Saleh to negotiate his exit, the president accepted an invitation by Gulf Arab states to talks with opposition representatives in Saudi Arabia, at a date yet to be set.

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“I promise that we will make every effort to return things to normal through talks with rational people from the Joint Meetings Party [Yemen’s main opposition coalition],” he told supporters in his hometown of Sanhan. “We repeat our invitation to them to sit at the table of dialogue, and we call for a restraint from violence.”

Leaders from core political opposition groups have yet to give a response to the talks plan, saying they would only answer when they received details.

“The United States has come to the conclusion that Saleh can’t deliver,” said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and author of the forthcoming book Yemen The Anatomy of a Failed State. Rabi was referring to a New York Times report on Sunday that the US had quietly shifted its position on Saleh and concluded the president was must be eased out of office.

“The problem with Yemen is that it’s basically a series of mini-states combined into one,” Rabi said, noting that the impoverished Red Sea country is plagued in the north by Iran-backed Shi’ite rebels, and in the south by secessionists and resurgent al-Qaida militants.

Rabi said that, similar to another volatile Arabian Peninsula state, Bahrain, Yemen could turn into the battleground for a proxy war between Iranian and Saudi interests.

In his blog on The Atlantic website on Monday, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg took issue with the view that “the Obama administration’s decision to give up on Yemen’s president-for-life, a superannuated autocrat who was our ally in the war against al-Qaida, means that America is moving into a post-9/11 phase of foreign- policy-making.”

“I tend to see Obama’s decision to quietly pull the plug on Ali Abdullah Saleh as the pragmatic, self-interested response of an American president who knows his putative friend is done for,” Goldberg wrote.

“Obama paid the price for backing Mubarak when most Egyptians had already realized their president was kaput. The administration wasn’t going to make that same mistake twice.”

More than 100 people have been killed since anti-government protests began in Yemen, including the March 18 killings of 52 anti-government protesters by rooftop snipers in Sanaa.

On Tuesday, hundreds of security troops and armed men again attacked a crowd of tens of thousands of protesters in Taiz, residents said, and protesters responded by hurling rocks.

Some diplomats in Saudi Arabia have suggested Riyadh wants Mohsen to replace Saleh, though the general has said he is not interested in taking power.

Civil society opposition groups say Mohsen, 70, an Islamist, is tainted by his kinship and long-time association with the veteran ruler.

A 2005 US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks said: “Ali Mohsen would likely face domestic as well as international opposition if he sought the presidency... Yemenis generally view him as cynical and self-interested.”

One of Washington’s fears has been that Yemen could fragment along tribal and regional lines – a specter Saleh has raised in speeches – allowing al-Qaida’s aggressive regional wing based in the impoverished country to stage more attacks abroad.

“I think Saleh will fall within a week,” Yemeni analyst Ali Seif Hassan told Reuters. “Especially after what happened in Taiz. The people cannot stand it any more. They are not going to wait in their tents after they saw so many of their peers killed.”

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