U.N. envoy in new push for Yemen power transfer

Reuters

SANAA (Reuters) - A U.N. envoy returned to Yemen on Thursday to try to persuade President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit under a Gulf-brokered plan to halt months of unrest, which flared again in the city of Taiz where security forces fired on protesters.

One person was killed and eight were wounded in the shooting in Taiz, Yemen's commercial capital, some 200 km (120 miles) south of Sanaa, after demonstrators had called for Saleh to be put on trial, a Reuters witness said.

A tribal chief and an army lieutenant were killed and three people wounded in an ambush in Taiz province, state television reported, blaming pro-opposition fighters for the attack.

Three soldiers were killed when militants on a motorcycle shot at a patrol in the southeastern port city of Mukalla, an official in Hadramout province said.

In Sanaa, officials said U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar would meet Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and opposition leaders to try to clinch the deal devised by Yemen's rich Gulf neighbors to end nine months of protests against Saleh's 33-year rule.

"I hope this will be an opportunity to solve the issues between the political factions in Yemen," Benomar told state news agency Saba when he arrived in the capital.

In an interview posted on opposition website al-Sahwa, British Ambassador John Wilks said it was time for Saleh to fulfill his pledge to leave office: "The important thing is we need actions rather than words to complete the process," he said, adding that 90 percent of the disagreements between the opposition and Saleh's ruling party had been resolved.

Saleh has three times agreed to the Gulf plan only to pull out of signing at the very last minute, but diplomats have warned the veteran leader against backing down again.

"If we do not succeed in finalizing the negotiations around the Gulf initiative and entering the transitional period, discussions will begin about the next steps, including sanctions," Wilks said in comments published in Arabic.

Yemen has been paralyzed by unrest that has taken one of the poorest Arab nations to the brink of civil war, allowing swathes of territory to escape already weak central government control.

That has fanned fears in neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia and Western powers that al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing could use the upheaval to imperil shipping routes through the Gulf of Aden and plot attacks on the region and beyond.

Benomar's trip follows a French statement that the European Union planned to discuss freezing Saleh's assets. The U.N. Security Council has unanimously condemned Yemen's crackdown on protesters and urged Saleh to sign the Gulf deal.

If Benomar's mission succeeds, the deal could be signed in mid-November in Saudi Arabia, Yemeni officials said. In September Saleh empowered his deputy Hadi to sign in his place.

Under the deal, Saleh would step down and a national unity government would be formed ahead of early elections. A body would also be set up to restructure the armed forces.

Until recently, Saleh had objected to some of the conditions of the deal, but European diplomats said he had now acquiesced.

An opposition spokeswoman was skeptical.

"We cannot say there is real progress regarding any transfer of power until the Gulf initiative has been signed," Houriya Mashhour of the National Council of the Revolution told Reuters.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Sami Aboudi and Isabel Coles; Editing by Alistair Lyon)