SANAA, Yemen – The party of Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh suggested Sunday he would not sign a proposed deal to step down after 32 years in power if the signing was held "behind closed doors" and said he wanted a public event held for all to attend, including opposition leaders.
The statement came hours before Saleh was scheduled to sign the agreement and was the latest in a series of mixed signals from Yemen's embattled president.
Saleh backed away from signing at least twice before, adding to the opposition's deep mistrust of a leader known for adept political maneuvering that has kept him in power for decades.
The U.S.-supported deal, mediated by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, calls for Saleh to step down in 30 days and transfer power to his vice president. It also would give him immunity from prosecution.
Yemen's opposition coalition signed the deal Saturday, based on what it said were guarantees the president would sign the next day. Addressing Saleh's call for the opposition to attend Sunday's signing, opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri said, "We are ready to go to the moon if he is really serious. But it is becoming clear that he is backing away."
Even if Saleh goes ahead with the planned signing, it is far from certain whether that would satisfy the many different groups protesting his rule in the streets.
Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis poured into a central square Sunday that has become the center of opposition protests, waving Yemeni flags in rejection of the deal. They held banners that read: "Now now Ali, down with the president," and "Go out Ali."
Women mingled with men, unlike in previous protests when female protesters stood on the edge of the square segregated from men, in keeping with Sharia law that mandates separation of the sexes. Children had their faces painted with Yemeni flags, while youths carried pictures of slain protesters. Young men and women held a 6-foot-long (2-meter) Yemeni flag.
The protesters say the deal falls short of their demands for Saleh's immediate departure and the dismantling of his regime. They also reject any immunity for the Yemeni leader and say the opposition parties don't speak for their demands.
"This initiative is only meant to save Ali not Yemen. We are going to continue our revolution until the end. Like Tunisia and Egypt, we will go against the opposition if they form a government while Saleh is still in power," declared Tawakul Karman, a protest leader and senior member of the opposition Islamic fundamentalist Islah Party.
She said the protesters were escalating their push by calling a nationwide general strike.
On Saturday, Saleh condemned the proposed deal as "a coup" and warned the U.S. and Europe that his departure would open the door for al-Qaida to seize control of the fragile nation on the edge of Arabia.
In what appeared to be a state-orchestrated move to show a security void, pro-Saleh militiamen dressed in traditional Yemeni dress with daggers at their waists or brandishing swords roamed the streets Sunday, especially around embassies. In two incidents, diplomatic convoys came under assault and were harassed.
Eyewitnesses said armed men attacked a convoy of the Gulf Cooperation Council's chief mediator, secretary-general Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, for 10 minutes, barring it from reaching the United Arab Emirates Embassy. Pounding the car, they shouted against Gulf intervention in Yemeni affairs.
An Associated Press reporter saw the convoy of the Chinese ambassador being attacked by armed men. An extra police force was deployed to clear the way for the ambassador's car and disperse the crowd.
Meanwhile, dozens of pro-Saleh loyalists demanding the deal be rejected gathered in front of the Police Academy, where the ruling party general assembly had convened to discuss the deal.
"We are coming under pressure, to reject the initiative," said Mohammed Saad, a general assembly member.
Dozens of other supporters erected a big tent in one of Sanaa's main streets, blocking traffic and raising banners that read: "Don't go, don't sign!"
Saleh has managed to cling to power in the face of near daily protests by Yemenis fed up with corruption and poverty. Like other anti-government movements sweeping the Arab world, they took inspiration from the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The president has swung between offering concessions, taking them back and executing a violent crackdown that has killed more than 150 people, according to the opposition, which says it compiled the tally from lists of the dead at hospitals around the nation.
The bloodshed triggered a wave of defections by ruling party members, lawmakers, Cabinet ministers and senior diplomats. Saleh's own tribe has joined those demanding his ouster. Several top army commanders, including a longtime confidant who heads a powerful armored division, joined the opposition and deployed their tanks in the streets of Sanaa to protect the protesters.
Saleh has been able to survive thanks to the loyalty of Yemen's most highly trained and best-equipped military units, which are led by close family members.
That has raised concerns the political crisis could turn into an armed clash between the rival military forces if a deal is further delayed.
Seeking to win some support in the West for his continued rule, Saleh has warned several times that without him, al-Qaida would take control of the country.
"To the Americans and Europeans, al-Qaida is coming and it will take control," he said Saturday in his televised address to members of the security forces. "The future will be worse than the present."
The United States, which had supported Saleh with financial aid and military equipment to fight the country's dangerous al-Qaida branch, has backed away from the embattled leader.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has an estimated 300 fighters in Yemen and has been behind several nearly successful attacks on U.S. targets, including one in which they got a would-be suicide bomber on board a Detroit-bound flight in December 2009. The explosive device, sewn into his underwear, failed to detonate properly.
The proposal — first put forward in March by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — gives a clear timetable for a transfer of power.
One week after Saleh signs, the opposition takes leadership of a national unity government that will include representatives of Saleh's party. Parliament will then pass a law granting him legal immunity and a day later — 30 days after the deal is signed — he is to step down and transfer power to his deputy.
A month after that, presidential elections are to be held.