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Yemen crisis worsens as Saleh loyalists trap US ambassador

Yemen's President Saleh again rejected a deal to transfer power and allowed armed supporters to surround an embassy where the US ambassador was meeting with European and Arab envoys.

By Adam BaronMcClatchy Newspapers, Hannah AllamMcClatchy Newspapers / May 23, 2011

Women shout slogans during an anti-government rally against Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, May 23. France on Monday accused Saleh of being irresponsible by refusing to sign a power transition agreement that would see him step down.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Sanaa, Yemen

Yemen's political crisis took a dramatic turn yesterday when armed loyalists of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh surrounded an embassy, trapping the American and other ambassadors inside for hours until they apparently were flown out by Yemeni military helicopter.

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The tense episode – a deep affront to Washington and Yemen's Gulf Arab allies – spells the end of a US-backed plan for peaceful transition from Saleh's 32 years in power, and raises grave concerns for what comes next in the bloody uprising.

On Sunday, Saleh again balked at signing the agreement drawn up by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as armed mobs and tribesmen took to the streets of the capital, Sanaa, and surrounded an embassy where at least five US, European, and Arab envoys were meeting about the crisis, according to witnesses and news reports.

Late Sunday, the GCC announced it was withdrawing the initiative.

Though ruling party officials described the crowds outside the embassies as peaceful demonstrators, Saleh's government is widely seen as responsible for allowing the standoff.

"What we've seen today is something that Saleh is doing something he has done again and again ... creating a crisis and then 'swooping in' to solve it," said Gregory Johnsen, a Cairo-based Yemen expert with Princeton University. "Hopefully, the deeply flawed, very problematic GCC deal can now be put to rest."

'We can't leave the embassy'

Saleh supporters massed outside the Emirati embassy, blocking two main entrances and at one point attacking a convoy bringing the GCC's top mediator, Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, to the compound, news agencies reported. Mobs surrounded other foreign embassies; the Chinese ambassador's convoy also came under attack, according to news reports.

"Everybody is worried. We can't leave the embassy," an unnamed Saudi diplomat told the Associated Press before the apparent helicopter rescue.

After nightfall, according to news reports, Yemeni military helicopters landed and whisked the diplomats to the presidential palace. Some officials said helicopters landed in the compound, but vehicle convoys ferried out the diplomats.

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