Yemeni leader rejects mediation; 1 dies in protest

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, center, laughs while greeted by his supporters during a rally supporting him, in Sanaa,Yemen, Friday, April 8, 2011.

SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh rejected a mediation offer by Gulf nations that called on him to resign, denouncing the proposal in a speech before tens of thousands of cheering supporters in the capital Friday. An even larger group of demonstrators nearby and hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country demanded his ouster.

In the southern city of Taiz, witnesses said police fired tear gas and bullets and beat protesters who marched in a burial procession carrying the coffins of several people killed during a demonstration last week. One man was fatally shot in the head, three other people were seriously wounded and dozens of others suffered breathing problems, said Dr. Sadek al-Shuga, who was running a makeshift field hospital nearby.

Security forces have surrounded the Taiz protesters and the clashes were continuing, said Taiz activist Bushra al-Maqtari.

More than 120 people have been killed since Yemen’s protests calling for the removal of Saleh began on Feb. 11, inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Hundreds of thousands of people protesting in 13 other Yemeni provinces Friday also demanded that Saleh leave office after more than 30 years in power in this impoverished country on the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen’s central government is weak, relies on the support of the powerful tribes and is widely seen as riddled with corruption.

The only significant pro-government rally was in Sanaa, where police and army units were deployed to prevent clashes between rival demonstrators.

Saleh lashed out against an offer by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which invited Saleh and the opposition to a mediation session in Saudi Arabia and proposed that the president hand over power to his deputy in return for immunity from prosecution for him and his family.

The council includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain, but it was Qatar and the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network that Saleh singled out in his criticism. Earlier this week, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheik Hamed bin Jassem told reporters that “we hope to reach an agreement that includes the resignation” of Saleh.

“We derive our authority and legitimacy from you and not from Qatar’s or other officials or from what Al-Jazeera says,” Saleh said.

In a statement, the presidential palace said that Saleh welcomes “the good intentioned efforts that our brothers in the GCC are making to solve the crisis, particularly Saudi Arabia,” which has long been an important ally for the Yemeni president. But it said he rejected Sheik Hamed’s comments as “interference” in Yemen’s affairs.

Saleh has offered to step down at the end of this year if an acceptable transfer of power is reached, but the opposition fears he is just stalling for time.

Yemen is wracked by a tribal rebellion in the north, a separatist movement in the south and the presence of an al-Qaida affiliate operating in the remote mountainous hinterlands. Saleh has been a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida, but there are signs he is losing American support.

Hammoud al-Hetar, who resigned as Yemen’s religious endowments and guidance minister last month, told Saleh opponents gathered in Sanaa before noon prayers that the youth revolution is peaceful with the aim to “establish a civil state that respects human rights, observes equal citizens’ rights.”

Al-Hetar disputed the government’s contention that Yemen’s branch of al-Qaida would control the country if the president stepped down. He claimed the terrorist group’s presence in the country “is less than 10 percent of what the government media used to portray it.”

“The threats against al-Qaida have been exaggerated by the government media because the officials want to get money in the name of fighting terrorism,” he said.

Al-Hetar said that the coming government “rejects terrorism and extremism and will strongly fight it while establishing better relations with all the countries and respect international laws and treaties.”