SANAA, Yemen — Yemen's political crisis took a dramatic turn Sunday when armed loyalists to the embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh surrounded an embassy, trapping the American and other ambassadors inside for hours until they apparently were flown out by Yemeni military helicopter.
The tense episode - a deep affront to Washington and Yemen's Gulf Arab allies - spells 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 and tribesmen 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 GCC 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.
"What we've seen today is something that Saleh is doing something he has done again and again...creating a crisis and then 'swooping in' to solve it," said Gregory Johnsen, a Cairo-based Yemen expert with Princeton University. "Hopefully, the deeply flawed, very problematic GCC deal can now be put to rest."
Saleh supporters massed outside the Emirati embassy, blocking two main 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 (JMP), a coalition of Yemen's establishment political parties, signed the deal Saturday. They've refused to enter the presidential palace while Saleh is at the helm.
"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 warned in an address carried by state television.
Saleh had been a close U.S. ally in the fight against the al Qaida terror network, whose Yemen-based branch is now considered the most active and dangerous in the world.
Perhaps because of Saleh's help with counterterrorism efforts, President Barack Obama's administration has appeared at times reluctant to press too hard for Saleh to go, Yemeni activists complain. Obama barely mentioned Yemen in his much-publicized speech Thursday on the rebellions spreading through the Middle East.
The Obama administration backed the plan put forward by the GCC, a consortium of Arab Gulf nations, which calls for Saleh to resign and transfer power to his vice president within 30 days. In exchange, Saleh would receive immunity from prosecution. At least three times, Saleh has agreed to sign the accord, only to back out at the last minute.
After the latest collapse Sunday, which coincided with Yemeni Nation Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the president's insistence that Saleh step down.
"President Saleh is a cat with more than nine lives," said a Washington-based U.S. official who visited the region earlier this month. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to make public statements on the issue.
Even with a deal with Saleh, the American official said, a transition period is likely to be tumultuous, with Yemeni officials less focused on tracking down members of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen wing is called.
"A successor government may become far more preoccupied with very legitimate domestic priorities - creating a new government, holding elections, trying to prevent the economy from going even further downhill - and that may mean taking their eye off the terrorist threat that worries us so much," the American official said.
Already, he added, "our counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is less intense because they're so distracted by the domestic crisis."
Baron, a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Allam reported from Cairo.
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