SANAA, Yemen – Yemen’s political crisis took a dramatic turn Sunday when an armed mob loyal to embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh surrounded an embassy, trapping the American and other ambassadors inside for hours until they apparently were flown out in a Yemeni military helicopter.
The tense episode – a deep affront to Washington and Yemen’s Gulf Arab allies – means the end of a U.S.-backed plan for peaceful transition from Saleh’s 32 years in power, and raises grave concerns for what comes next in the bloody uprising that’s raged for more than three months.
On Sunday, Saleh again balked at signing the agreement drawn up by the Gulf Cooperation Council, as armed mobs took to the streets of the capital, Sanaa, and surrounded an embassy where at least five U.S., European and Arab envoys were meeting about the crisis, according to witnesses and news reports.
Late Sunday, the Gulf Cooperation Council announced it was withdrawing the initiative.
Though ruling party officials described the crowds outside the embassies as peaceful demonstrators, Saleh’s government is widely seen as responsible for allowing the standoff.
Saleh supporters massed outside the United Arab Emirates Embassy, blocking two entrances and at one point attacking a convoy bringing the GCC’s top mediator, Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, to the compound, news agencies reported. Mobs surrounded other foreign embassies; the Chinese ambassador’s convoy also came under attack, according to news reports.
“Everybody is worried. We can’t leave the embassy,” an unnamed Saudi diplomat told the Associated Press before the apparent helicopter rescue.
After nightfall, according to news reports, Yemeni military helicopters landed and whisked the diplomats to the presidential palace. Some officials said helicopters landed in the compound, but vehicle convoys ferried out the diplomats.
At the palace, top officials from Yemen’s ruling party signed the accord. Saleh was expected to sign but did not. On state television, he later said he refused an agreement signed “behind closed doors” and demanded that opposition leaders be present.
Representatives from the Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of Yemen’s establishment political parties, signed the deal Saturday. They have refused to enter the presidential palace while Saleh remains in control.
“If they don’t comply, they are dragging us to a civil war, and they will have to take responsibility for the bloodshed in the past and the blood which will be spilled later on because of their stupidity,” Saleh said in an address carried by state television.