A surge in violence across Yemen threatens to derail Sunday's meeting between the government and opposition to finalize a plan for longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh to transfer power in 30 days in exchange for immunity.
At least 10 demonstrators were killed Wednesday when plainclothed gunmen fired on thousands of demonstrators marching toward a heavily contested area of the capital, Sanaa, to protest the plan, according to doctors in a field hospital. Hundreds more were wounded as demonstrators staged a standoff, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at government supporters, according to witnesses.
Demonstrators nationwide have opposed the deal, the product of months of negotiations led by the international community, and pledged to continue protests. Their aim, as underscored by choosing a marching route Wednesday that wound between government soldiers and a loyalist campground, seemed to be to incite a violent response that will derail the current deal.
“We fought them for at least an hour,” says Shuaib al-Qadima, a teenage demonstrator injured amidst the volley of stone throwing Wednesday. “Saleh can’t just end this revolution the way he wants. We don’t want initiatives or discussions. We want him to go.”
Opposition threatens to pull out
In response to the latest unrest, the umbrella opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) said in a statement Thursday that such violence could undermine Sunday's meeting, which is to be held in Riyadh.
"In the event of your [the government's] inability to protect protesters, we will find ourselves unable to pursue an agreement that the regime seeks to use to shed more blood," the statement said.
Sunday's meeting, to be held in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, has added urgency to Yemen’s protests. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s chaos, demonstrators gathered at Sanaa University spoke of further escalations in coming days. Protest leaders, including prominent female activist Tawakul Karman, have been advocating a march on the presidential palace – the most heavily guarded area in the city.
“We’re united against this initiative and now we’re going to move our people to show it,” says Adel Shamsan, a protest organizer. “This initiative is a solution for a crisis. But this isn’t a crisis, it’s a revolution.”
“We want the JMP to reject this initiative and support the people,” adds Mr. Shamsan.
Protesters oppose immunity for Saleh
The young demonstrators that make up most of Sanaa’s antiregime movement are unwilling to relinquish the right to prosecute Saleh, whom they hold responsible for killing more than 130 demonstrators since protests began in January. Many felt betrayed by the JMP’s initial acceptance of the deal, intensifying a months-long rift between street protesters and the official opposition parties.
Thus far, Saleh appears undeterred by mounting pressure on the streets. But few would be surprised if the notoriously mercurial leader withdrew support for the initiative.
Less than one day after agreeing to the plan, Saleh had already seemed to reverse course, labeling the protests a “coup” and telling the BBC that he would only leave power through elections. Analysts see the contradiction as one of the reasons the JMP accepted the plan, an attempt to avoid the outbreak of much broader violence.
“Up to this point, everything is on schedule,” says a Yemeni government official familiar with the situation. “The General People's Congress party remains committed to the deal.”