Exclusive: Yemen nearing deal on transition of power

By Cynthia Johnston and Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA (Reuters) – Yemen’s foreign minister hopes for a deal on a transition of power as early as Saturday to end a standoff with protesters, and said the time frame of a transfer by President Ali Abdullah Saleh could be negotiated.

“I hope it will be today, before tomorrow,” Abubakr al-Qirbi, who is serving as caretaker foreign minister, told Reuters. He said a deal would be based on an offer by Saleh for parliamentary and presidential elections and a new constitution.

“President Saleh is willing to look at all possibilities, as long as there are really serious commitments by the JMP (opposition) to come and initiate a serious dialogue between them and the ruling party.”

Saleh said on Friday he was ready to cede power to prevent further bloodshed in the fractious Arabian Peninsula state, but only to what he called “safe hands” after weeks of street demonstrations demanding his immediate ouster.

Talks have been under way for several days on two tracks to work out details of a deal on a peaceful transition in Yemen, which sits next door to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and is home to a resurgent arm of al Qaeda.

Qirbi said the country’s ruling party and main opposition coalition would be holding talks on Saturday. Discussions were centering on the time frame of a transition, among other issues.

“I think the time period is something that can be negotiated. It shouldn’t be really an obstacle to reach an agreement,” he said.

“I think things are very close if the real intention is really to reach an agreement. But if there are parties who want to obstruct it, then of course one cannot predict.”

Saleh, in power for 32 years, has come under intensifying pressure to resign since snipers firing from rooftops killed 52 protesters a week ago after Friday prayers, triggering a string of defections from his circle including that of a top general.

KEEN ON PEACEFUL RESOLUTION

Saleh has offered a string of concessions, all rejected by opposition parties, including to transfer power after the drafting of a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections by the end of the year.

“Both parties are keen really to see a peaceful resolution, because if they do not I think it will be disastrous for Yemen under existing conditions,” he said.

“I feel that… all parties realize it is essential to compromise, that everybody has to give concessions. I think if we maintain this approach … we will reach an agreement.”

Some issues that still needed to be resolved included the form a future government would take. There has been talk about converting from a presidential to a parliamentary system, as well as adopting proportional representation in elections.

Qirbi, however, said he had no information on the outcome of talks between Saleh and a key general, Ali Mohsen, who has thrown his weight behind protesters and sent troops to protect them.

A source close to Mohsen said he and Saleh had discussed a deal in which both men would leave the country, taking their sons and relatives with them. But the source said he thought Saleh may have backed out, based on recent speeches. A Saleh spokesman has denied being close to such a deal.

Western countries are concerned al Qaeda militants could exploit any disorder arising from a messy transition if Saleh, a pivotal U.S. and Saudi ally fighting for his political life, finally relinquishes his authoritarian rule.

Qirbi said there was a risk of violence but hoped the crisis could be resolved peacefully. “Let me be optimistic and say that until now I think there is a great deal of wisdom shown by the leadership of the country, especially by President Saleh who is doing everything to avert violence.”

Exclusive: Yemen nearing deal on transition of power