SANAA, Yemen – Yemen's embattled president agreed Saturday to a proposal by Gulf Arab mediators to step down within 30 days and hand power to his deputy in exchange for immunity from prosecution, a major about-face for the autocratic leader who has ruled for 32 years.
The protest movement demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immediate departure said Saturday that it also accepted the latest draft of the deal but with reservations.
A day earlier, protesters staged the largest of two months of demonstrations, filling a five-lane boulevard across the capital with a sea of hundreds of thousands of people. A deadly crackdown by government forces and Saleh supporters has killed more than 130 people and prompted key allies to abandon the president and join the protesters.
The opposition movement, fed up with poverty and corruption under Saleh, took inspiration from the toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.
The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes powerful Saudi Arabia, has been seeking to broker an end to the crisis in the fragile and impoverished nation on the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula.
Under the latest draft, Yemen's parliament would grant Saleh legal protection from prosecution. The president would submit his resignation to lawmakers within 30 days and hand power to his vice president, who would call for new presidential elections.
Opposition spokesman Mohammed Kahtan described the Gulf council's initiative as "positive" and said the leaders of the opposition parties have all agreed on it.
Kahtan, however, listed several reservations. He said the opposition rejects the draft proposal's call for the formation of a national unity government within seven days of the signing of a deal and wants to see Saleh step down first.
"We would have to swear an oath to Saleh, who has already lost his legitimacy," he explained.
They are also against giving Yemen's parliament — dominated by Saleh's party — the power to approve or reject his resignation, which opens to the door to allowing the president time to stall.
State TV reported that Yemen's foreign minister delivered the government's acceptance to mediators on Saturday.
The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met in the Emirati capital Saturday with his Yemeni counterpart, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, and urged him to accept the GCC plan, the official UAE news agency WAM reported.
Protests continued throughout the day and expanded to include a general strike.
Schools, government offices and private companies shut their doors in response to the Yemeni opposition's call for a strike aimed at putting more pressure Saleh to step down.
Thousands of protesters kept up sit-ins at city squares in at least five provinces, while Saleh accused the opposition of "dragging the country into a civil war" in a televised speech to a military academy.
Saleh has over the past two months used violence to try to quell the unrest. He has also offered concessions, including a pledge not to run again for president when his term is up in 2013 or allow his son to succeed him, but to no avail.