Yemeni protesters pushed Tuesday for an interim presidential council to prevent the embattled president from returning to power, as dissident gunmen controlled parts of the city of Taez and loyal troops retreated to their bases.
“The people want an interim council” chanted tens of thousands of protesters as they marched on the residence of Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
Hadi is caretaker president as veteran President Ali Abdullah Saleh recovers after treatment in Riyadh for wounds suffered in an explosion on Friday.
He has said Saleh’s health was quickly improving and that he would return to Yemen within days to take the helm of his teetering regime.
In a statement after the protest, the Revolution Youth group demanded “an immediate declaration of a one-year transitional period… and the formation of an interim presidential council made of civilians known for their integrity and competence.”
The group leading protests at the University Square in Sanaa, now dubbed “Change Square,” also demanded banning figures of the “former regime” from joining the council, and not allowing members of the proposed council to run in later presidential elections.
Meanwhile, gunmen backed by the opposition and local tribes have deployed in large parts of Yemen’s second-largest city Taez to protect installations and neighbourhoods after security forces vanished two days ago, residents said.
Vigilante committees were formed following information that some 500 pro-regime thugs planned to cause chaos in Taez, which is leading the opposition movement against Saleh, they said.
“I consider Taez to have fallen under the control” of the dissidents, Sheikh Hammoud Saeed al-Mikhlafi, head of the tribal council in Taez, told AFP by telephone.
He said gunmen have been deployed to “protect the peaceful (anti-regime) demonstrators” after they faced “genocide” by pro-Saleh security forces.
More than 50 demonstrators were killed on May 30 after security forces cracked down on a sit-in in Freedom Square in central Taez, according to the UN human rights office.
At least 200 protesters have been killed nationwide in more than four months of deadly protests.
Loyal security forces had withdrawn to pockets within Taez, including the bases of Central Security and the Republican Guard, the local presidential palace and Al-Thawra hospital, an AFP journalist reported.
The interior ministry denied on state television the claim that dissident gunmen have taken control of Taez.
Sanaa residents, meanwhile, said the capital was quiet on Tuesday following a ceasefire after nearly 140 people were killed in clashes between gunmen loyal to powerful opposition tribal chief Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar and Yemeni troops that erupted on May 23.
In Zinjibar in the south, meanwhile, 30 suspected Al-Qaeda fighters and nine soldiers were killed when troops advanced on the city in a bid to regain control there.
Residents reported sporadic fighting outside Zinjibar on Tuesday, saying the army had not yet managed to enter the city.
Suspected Al-Qaeda militants have controlled much of Zinjibar, capital of Abyan province, since taking it on May 29. Only the military base inside the city, home to the 25th mechanised brigade, remains in government hands.
The two sides blasted each other with machine guns, artillery rounds and mortar shells, military sources said, adding that the army would continue fighting the jihadists until the city is freed from their grip.
Security officials insist the militants holding the city are Al-Qaeda fighters, but the political opposition accuses Saleh’s government of inventing a jihadist threat in a bid to head off Western pressure on his 33-year rule.
Washington has urged Saleh, its declared ally in the “war on terror,” to step down immediately.
Washington supports a deal, brokered by the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, that would see Saleh cede power to an interim administration within 30 days, in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Britain on Tuesday called for an immediate political transition in Yemen.
“We urge the vice president to work closely with all sides to implement the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement and to begin political transition now,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told lawmakers in the British parliament.
Saleh, a wily operator who since 1978 has bought off tribal loyalties and stitched them together into a governable framework, has refused to sign the accord and warned that his ouster would only serve to boost Al-Qaeda.
Yemen is the home of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of the slain Osama bin Laden’s militant network. The group is blamed for anti-US plots including trying to blow up a US-bound airplane on Christmas Day in 2009.