Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s embattled president, has called for early presidential and parliamentary elections for a peaceful transfer of power in his strife-torn country.
In an address on television, Saleh said he had authorised the vice-president to engage in dialogue with the opposition and sign a transition deal.
He said presidential and parliamentary elections would be held after an agreement was signed.
A defiant Saleh said violence would not succeed in bringing about change in the country. “This bloodbath will not get you power,” he told those ranged against him.
He blamed the violence that has plagued his country on elements of al-Qaeda.
He said he was committed to the Gulf initiative on power transfer in his country.
Alarmed by the escalating unrest, Yemen’s wealthy Gulf neighbours have been trying for months to persuade Saleh to accept a plan under which he would hand over power in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution.
Saleh had been involved in the negotiations, repeatedly promising to step down only to change his position at the last minute.
Mahjoob Zweiri, an expert on Middle East affairs from Qatar University, said it was not the first time Saleh had tried to label protesters as supporters of al-Qaeda.
“I am not sure it will please people in Sanaa. What they were waiting for was his resignation,” he said.
“This kind of labelling might lead to more confrontation.”
Sunday’s address was Saleh’s first since he returned to the country last week after recuperating in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for three months following an attack on him in June.
As Saleh spoke, anti-government protesters lit a symbolic torch in the capital’s Change Square.
“All Yemenis were expecting him to behave courageously in these contentious moments by signing the Gulf initiative as he said he would do,” said Houriya Mahshour, spokesman for Yemeni national council.
“What he said was simply a show of procrastination because if he was really intent on signing the initiative he could have done that for achieving a peaceful transfer of power.”
A freelance journalist in Sanaa, who cannot be named for safety reasons, said the reaction in Change Square was very negative.
“People are unconvinced by his promises of elections. There were boos when he first appeared and throughout the speech, particularly when he made reference to the youth being victimised.
“The protesters I spoke to say they will only take him seriously if he puts hand to paper and signs the agreement.”
Sanaa has been gripped by street battles and exchanges of shelling between the elite Republican Guards, led by Saleh’s son, and tribesmen opposing Saleh as well as military units who had defected.
Hours before Saleh spoke, there was more violence as forces loyal to the president targeted protesters, killing at least five across the country.
Protests have been taking place on a nearly daily basis in Sanaa since mid-January calling for an end to Saleh’s rule which began in 1978. Saleh was re-elected in September 2006 for a seven-year mandate.