Sana’a: Yemeni officials rowed back from President Ali Abdullah Saleh`s statement that he would step down within "the coming days", and opponents dismissed the offer on Sunday as yet another delaying tactic to try and stay in power.
Saleh, 69, has defied protests all year against his three-decade rule, reversing repeated pledges to quit. The United States and Saudi Arabia worry that unrest risks tipping the dirt-poor nation into civil war and economic collapse.
In a speech late on Saturday, Saleh said: "I reject power and I will continue to reject it, and I will be leaving power in the coming days."
But Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi said Saleh`s departure still depends on reaching an agreement, which had yet to be signed.
"He said this to show his commitment to this plan, but there is no plan for a resignation or transfer of powers before we have agreed and signed a deal. That would just plunge the country into chaos or even war," he said.
"He is ready to leave power in days, yes, but whether this happens in the coming days or months will depend on the success of negotiations for a deal."
Protests against Saleh`s rule have paralysed Yemen, weakening government control over swathes of the country and fanning fears al Qaeda`s regional wing may use the upheaval to expand its foothold near Red Sea oil-shipping routes.
Opponents say speech a ploy
Saleh`s speech may be intended to deflect criticism in the UN Security Council, which is due to be briefed on Yemen in coming days and could consider a resolution calling on Saleh to implement a power transfer deal. Opponents called it a ploy.
"Saleh is a liar, nothing has changed since his speech," said Mohammed al-Asl, an organiser of protests by opponents of Saleh camped out in a central square in the capital Sana’a.
"We`re used to this type of thing now. He just says anything to fool his own people, the world, and everyone. We`re not paying any attention to this."
Protesters, camped out in tents in the area in Sana’sa now dubbed "Change Square", were going about their usual business of buying food, cooking and chewing wads of qat, a mild leaf stimulant that is common in Yemen.
Saleh`s foreign minister met the ambassador for talks on Sunday, part of what many expect to be a diplomatic push to deflect action by the Security Council.
New pressure has come from an unexpected quarter after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on Friday to Tawakul Karman, one of the leading activists who has been on the street at "Change Square" outside Sana’a University since February.
The recognition of a Yemeni democracy activist could refocus global attention on the conflict in Yemen, a state of 23 million people with declining water resources, an imploding economy, separatist and sectarian conflicts and a surging al Qaeda wing.
The wily leader, who came to power in 1978, is under pressure from international allies, street protesters, armed opponents and opposition parties to make good on promises to hand over power. Washington and Riyadh fear Yemen could become a failed state overrun by al Qaeda.