Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to sign a U.S.-backed power transfer deal mediated by Gulf Arab states to resolve the impoverished country’s crisis, Yemen’s state television reported.
Saleh has repeatedly promised to sign the Gulf-brokered agreement, only to change his mind every time. Under the deal, Saleh would step down and transfer power to the vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
The TV said Saleh arrived in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Wednesday morning but did not say when the deal would be signed. It said that along with Gulf Arab representatives who sponsored the agreement, European and American envoys would also attend the signing.
Saleh has clung to power despite an 8-month-old uprising, mass protests calling for his ouster and a June assassination attempt that left him badly wounded and forced him to travel to Saudi Arabia for more than three months of hospital treatment.
But things appeared to be shifting on Tuesday, when the U.N. secretary-general’s envoy to Yemen, Jamal bin Omar, said all parties had agreed on a plan that would have Saleh step down.
“All parties agreed today on the Gulf initiative and the implementation of its mechanism,” bin Omar said after meetings with Yemen’s vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in Sanaa.
Security in Yemen has unraveled amid the uprising against Saleh’s 30-year reign. The situation is particularly bad in the south, where al-Qaida militants _ from what is perhaps the world’s most active branch of the terror network _ have taken control of entire towns, using the turmoil to strengthen their position.
The unarmed protesters have held their ground with remarkable resilience, flocking to the streets of Sanaa and other Yemeni cities and towns to demand reforms from the autocratic government and braving a violent crackdown by government forces that has killed hundreds.
But their uprising, inspired by other Arab revolts in the region that saw longtime rulers of Egypt and Tunisa go, has at times been hijacked by Yemen’s two traditional powers _ the tribes and the military _ further deepening the country’s turmoil.
Breakaway military units and tribal fighters have been battling in Sanaa with troops loyal to Saleh, in fighting that has escalated in recent months.
An impoverished nation of some 25 million people, Yemen is of strategic value to the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. It sits close to the major Gulf oilfields and overlooks key shipping lanes in the Red and Arabian seas.