SANAA, Yemen – Yemen's president called Friday for early presidential elections, ignoring an earlier promise to sign a deal that would end his decades-long rule.
Ali Abdullah Saleh was speaking to a crowd of supporters near his presidential palace, just yards (meters) from hundreds of thousands of his opponents gathered in a nearby square chanting anti-government slogans.
Saleh didn't specify a date for the elections or mention a proposal mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council to ensure he steps down in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
"We call for early presidential elections, to stop the bloodshed and to preserve traditions, and in a democratic and smooth manner," Saleh told a crowd of tens of thousands.
Yemen is reeling from three months of street protests in which more than 150 protesters have been killed. The United States, which until recently considered Saleh a key ally in fighting al-Qaida, has backed away from the leader.
President Barack Obama said Thursday that "Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power."
Saleh has balked at signing the regional deal, initially asking that his party officials sign it instead. Then after another attempt by the mediators to salvage the pact, Saleh refused to sign it, blaming the protesters for continuing to hold their rallies.
In a change of heart, Saleh on Thursday said he would sign the deal on Sunday.
It was not clear if Saleh had discussed the early elections option with his opponents or the regional mediators. In his speech Friday, he accused the protest movement of "treason."
"We will remain steadfast. We have been steadfast for four months in the face of a coup movement, and treason," he said.
The opposition has accused Saleh of stalling. In the square where thousands of protesters have been camped out for weeks, the religious cleric delivering the Friday sermon asked Yemen's Gulf neighbors to withdraw their proposal.
"He is playing for time," said Imam Mohammed al-Hummeri.