- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 23, 2011

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIAYemen’s authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed Wednesday to step down amid a fierce uprising to oust him after 33 years in power.

The U.S. and its powerful Gulf allies pressed for the deal, concerned that a security collapse in the impoverished Arab nation was allowing an active al Qaeda franchise to gain a firmer foothold.

Mr. Saleh is the fourth Arab leader toppled in the wave of Arab Spring uprisings this year, after longtime dictators fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The deal gives Mr. Saleh immunity from prosecution - contradicting a key demand of Yemen’s opposition protesters.

Seated beside Saudi King Abdullah in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Mr. Saleh signed the U.S.-backed deal hammered out by his country’s powerful Gulf Arab neighbors to transfer power within 30 days to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

That will be followed by early presidential elections within 90 days.

“This disagreement for the last 10 months has had a big impact on Yemen in the realms of culture, development, politics, which led to a threat to national unity and destroyed what has been built in past years,” Mr. Saleh said.

Protesters camped out in a public square near Sanaa’s university immediately rejected the deal, chanting, “No immunity for the killer.”

They vowed to continue their protests.

Mr. Saleh has clung to power despite the daily mass protests calling for his ouster and a June assassination attempt that left him badly wounded and forced him to travel to Saudi Arabia for more than three months of hospital treatment.

Since February, tens of thousands of Yemenis have protested in cities and towns across the nation, calling for democracy and the fall of Mr. Saleh’s regime.

The uprising has led to a security collapse, with armed tribesmen battling security forces in different regions and al Qaeda-linked militants stepping up operations in the country’s restive south.

For months, the U.S. and other world powers pressured Mr. Saleh to agree to the power transfer proposal by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and he agreed then backed down several times before.

All the while, the uprising raged, security and the economy deteriorated. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula grew more bold, even seizing some territory.

Even before the uprising began, Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East, fractured and unstable with a government that had weak authority at best outside the capital Sanaa.

Security is particularly bad in southern Yemen, where al Qaeda militants - from one of the world’s most active branches of the terror network - have taken control of entire towns, using the turmoil to strengthen their position.

The nation of some 25 million people is of strategic value to the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. It sits close to the major Gulf oil fields and overlooks key shipping lanes in the Red and Arabian seas.

Mr. Saleh addressed the country’s troubles without mentioning the demands of protesters who have filled squares across Yemen calling for his ouster, often facing deadly crackdowns from his security forces.

He also struck out at those who strove to topple him, calling the protests a “coup” and the bombing of his palace mosque that seriously wounded him in June “a scandal.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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