LONDON/DUBAI Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are trying to broker a deal to have Yemen's president step down and hand over power, possibly to an interim council of tribal and political leaders, sources told Reuters on Wednesday.
Ali Abdullah Saleh's at times bloody response to protests, inspired by those in Egypt and Tunisia, against his 32-year rule has tried the patience of his U.S. and Saudi backers.
A variety of official sources say they are now ready to push aside a long-time ally against Yemen-based al Qaeda in the hope of staving off a chaotic collapse of the poorest Arab state.
Though diplomats familiar with the negotiations question whether a deal is anywhere close to being struck, the proposal by the Gulf Arabs involves Saleh finally agreeing to stand down and handing his powers for a short time to a national council.
"The proposal is to have a governing council grouping all the various political parties and tribes for a period that would not exceed three months," one Gulf official told Reuters on Wednesday of a plan to be presented to Saleh and his opponents at talks to take place soon in Saudi Arabia. A date is not set.
"The council will set the way for elections," the Gulf official added, echoing other sources in the region and beyond.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which groups Saudi Arabia with its small neighbours Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, made the invitations on Monday.
Saleh told GCC envoys on Tuesday that he would come to the talks in Riyadh. The ambassadors were waiting for a response from opposition leaders who they met in Yemen on Wednesday.
More than 100 people have been killed since protests began in Yemen in February. The deaths of 52 protesters on March 18, apparently at the hands of gunmen supporting Saleh, have been a turning point in the conflict, turning allies both within Yemen and abroad against the veteran head of state.
"The talks in Saudi Arabia will discuss the modalities and mechanism for transition of power," another source close to the discussions told Reuters. "There are some names being circulated to head a transitional council."
These included Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, a leading figure among Yemen's powerful tribes, Abdulkarim al-Iryani, a U.S.-educated former prime minister and currently an adviser to Saleh, and another former premier Abdulaziz Abdul-Ghani.
It is not clear whether any of these could win a consensus among the opposition, which includes the Islamist Islah party, socialists, Arab nationalists and others. Nor is it clear they would be acceptable to Saleh, who wants a say in the matter.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter and key ally and funder of Saleh, fears that its neighbour could fragment along tribal or regional lines if a way is not found out of the crisis soon -- something Saleh has warned of in recent speeches.
Washington has long seen Saleh as a pivotal ally in its fight against al Qaeda, which has used its Yemen base to stage attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United States. In return for billions of dollars in military aid, Saleh has pledged to fight militants and allowed unpopular U.S. air strikes on their camps.
The opposition accuse him of playing fast and loose with his Washington ally, making deals with Islamists and militants at the same time as assuring the United States of his commitment.
NEGOTIATIONS PRESS AHEAD
Recent talks between Saleh and the opposition, some held in the presence of the U.S. ambassador, yielded little. Sources close to the talks in Sanaa say the United States gave Saleh an ultimatum to accept a deal and has since lost patience.
One Gulf Arab source said there was concern that talks may yet drag on: "Saleh is still manoeuvering. He keeps on coming with new ideas. All he wants is to stay in power. He starts off saying one thing and then ends up changing his mind."
The sources said talks had most recently bogged down over Saleh's demand for assurances that he and members of his family will not face prosecution, particularly for the corruption that is a particular grievance of many of the thousands of protesters who have been camping out at Sanaa University for two months.
Another source in the region said the Riyadh talks would discuss details of the transition of power but the GCC was keen not to be seen forcing a solution on the parties involved.
"Saudi Arabia wants to resolve Yemen at the soonest possible time," he said. "The GCC will monitor the talks to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition of power. They will include the logistics, timeline and structure of the transition."
This week Washington began to shift its policy of public support for Saleh, who has rallied large numbers of supporters and insists he should stay until elections late this year.
Opposition sources have said they would be prepared to accept Saleh's vice-president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, as interim head of state and to discuss removing some of Saleh's sons who have key positions once Saleh has stepped down. They want Saleh to leave the country during the transition period.
The veteran political survivor has seen a string of top generals, ambassadors and some tribes announce their backing for the protesters since the March 18 massacre of protesters.
(Writing by Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)