Saleh announces general amnesty as Yemen’s vice president assigns Basindwa to form government

Yemen elections set for Feb. 21

Yemeni armed forces stress full support for Gulf initiative

Houthis criticize opposition, commit massacre against Salafis in Saada

Iranian parliament downgrades relations with UK, to expel ambassador

West escalates sanctions against Iran as Tehran threatens U.S. and Israel

Ali Abdullah Saleh has pardoned Yemenis who "committed errors during the crisis" that has rocked the country since January and killed hundreds of people, according to state television.

The announcement on Sunday immediately angered groups who say Saleh can no longer take such decisions, having transferred his presidential powers to his deputy under a Gulf Co-operation Council deal to step down in return for immunity from prosecution.

The deal signed, on Wednesday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, stipulates that Saleh - who has been in power for more than three decades but faced 10 months of massive anti-government protests - must leave power within 90 days.

"The president of the republic has decreed a general amnesty for all those who have committed errors during the crisis," a statement flashed on state television said.

The reported pardon came as tensions remain high in Yemen, where Saleh returned overnight from Riyadh. Saleh was wounded in the June 3 bomb attack and had to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia.

"This is in violation of the Gulf initiative by which the president delegated his powers to the vice-president," Hurriya Mashhud, a spokesperson for the opposition, told the AFP news agency.

"He no longer has the right, nor the prerogative or the capacity to take such decisions," she said.

The state broadcaster said that the amnesty decided by Saleh "does not include those involved in crime and in the attack against the mosque at the presidential palace compound".

Suspects who are "members of [political] parties, groups or individuals will be brought to trial," the report said.

If the agreement goes according to plan, Saleh will become the fourth Arab ruler brought down by mass demonstrations that have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East.

This followed a decision on Friday by opposition parties to nominate Mohammed Salem Basindwa, the head of an alliance that led months of protests against Saleh, to form a new government.

"A presidential decree issued today... mandated ... Basindwa to form a government of national unity," Saba said.

Basindwa, a foreign minister from 1993 to 1994, is to form the new government under the deal signed in Riyadh.

Against this backdrop of political unrest, reports say at least 25 people have been killed and dozens wounded in sectarian violence in northern Yemen.

Shiite Muslim opposition forces attacked Sunni Islamist Salafi fighters with bursts of shelling, a Salafi spokesperson said on Sunday, a claim which could not be independently verified by Aljazeera.

The shelling, which killed 10 people on Saturday, continued on Sunday afternoon, the Salafi spokesperson said, bringing the death toll to 25 with a further 48 wounded in the latest flare-up in Damaj, about 150km north of the capital, Sana’a.

The conflict in the north, where government troops also tried to crush Shiite Houthi fighters before a ceasefire last year, is one of several plaguing Yemen which plans elections next year to replace Saleh.

Dayfallah al-Shami, a member of the Houthis' political office, disputed the Salafi account of the fighting.

He told the Reuters news agency that Abdelmalek al-Houthi, the Houthis' leader, had issued orders for a ceasefire but the Salafis rejected it and fought on.

"We have martyrs and wounded," he said. "We have informed the mediators that the Salafis can have their slogans as long as they refrain from incitement and takfir [denouncing a Muslim as an infidel]."

The clashes followed a protest in the northwestern city of Saada on Friday, in which Shiite Muslim protesters voiced their opposition to the GCC initiative, and called for Saleh to be put on trial.

In recent weeks, the Houthis have clashed with Salafi fighters, leading local tribal leaders to declare a truce between them.

It seemed to collapse on Saturday when, according to Abu Ismail Salafi, the Salafi spokesperson, Houthi fighters shelled the town of Damaj.

Members of the Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam, the Houthi fighters led an uprising based in the Saada province that Saleh's forces struggled to crush, with Saudi Arabia intervening militarily in 2009 before a ceasefire took hold the next year.

The Houthis, who effectively control Saada, are deeply wary of Saudi Arabia's promotion of puritanical Sunni Salafi creeds that class Shiites as heretics.

Yemen's vice president called presidential elections for February 21 Saturday under a deal aimed at ending months of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh that have brought the country to the edge of civil war.

If the agreement goes according to plan, Saleh will become the fourth Arab ruler brought down by mass demonstrations that have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East.

Saleh returned home Saturday after signing the deal with the opposition in Riyadh Wednesday under which he transferred his powers to Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after 33 years in office and 10 months of protests.

In a decree run on the Saba state news agency Saturday, Hadi said Yemenis "are called on to vote in early elections for a new president of the republic starting at 8 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, February 21, 2012."

"The early presidential election will take place under the management of the Supreme Commission For Elections and Referendum," the decree added.

Yemen has become engulfed under Saleh by political strife that has allowed free rein to northern rebels, southern secessionists and al-Qaeda.

Under the agreement, signed with the Yemeni opposition at a ceremony hosted by Saudi King Abdullah, Saleh will receive immunity from prosecution and keep his title until a successor is elected. Hadi was charged with calling the election within three months and forming a new government with the opposition.

Hundreds of people have been killed during months of protests seeking Saleh's overthrow. The political deadlock has reignited conflicts with separatists and militants, raising fears that al Qaeda's Yemen wing could take a foothold on the borders of Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.

Details of the power transfer deal - drawn up by Yemen's richer neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council earlier this year, and thwarted by Saleh on three separate occasions - were hammered out by U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar, with support from U.S. and European diplomats.

The deal has failed to appease protesters at Sana’a’s Change Square, with many of them angry that it has guaranteed Saleh and his family immunity.

Friday, opposition parties agreed to nominate the head of an alliance that led the protests, Mohammed Basindwa, to form a new government. Basindwa is a former foreign minister who leads the opposition National Council formed after the protests broke out in February.

Earlier Saturday, 10 people were killed in north Yemen when Shiite Muslim rebels shelled positions held by Sunni Islamist Salafi fighters after the collapse of a week-old cease-fire, a Salafi spokesman said.

The conflict between the Shiite Houthi rebels and the Sunni Salafis is just one of several plaguing Yemen. In recent weeks, the Houthis have skirmished with Salafist fighters, leading local tribesmen to broker a truce between them a week ago.

"The Houthis broke the cease-fire and shelled the town of Damaj," said the Salafi spokesman, who identified himself as Abu Ismail, adding that 15 people were injured.

Members of the Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam, the Houthi rebels led an uprising based in the northern Saada province that Saleh's forces have struggled to crush, with Saudi Arabia intervening militarily in 2009 before a cease-fire took hold last year.

The Houthis, who effectively control Saada, are deeply wary of Saudi Arabia's promotion of puritanical Sunni Salafi creeds that regard Shiites as heretics.

Saleh Habra, a Houthi leader, has accused the Yemeni government of supplying arms to the Salafis, who he said were trying to build a military camp near the Saudi border. "We are trying to cut off their arms supplies," Habra told Reuters last week.

Separately, Yemeni aircraft bombed sites used by anti-government tribal militants in northern Sana’a, killing seven people, tribal sources said Saturday.

Those sources said tribal fighters were seeking to surround a camp used by the Republican Guard, a unit led by Saleh's son.

Meanwhile, Britain has described as "regrettable" a vote by Iran's parliament to expel the British ambassador to Tehran, and warned it will respond "robustly" if the threat is followed through.

With some Iranian MPs reportedly chanting, 'Death to Britain', the chamber voted by a wide majority to downgrade diplomatic and economic ties with the UK.

The bill they adopted, which now has to go to the Guardians Council for approval, demands that Iran's ambassador to Britain also be withdrawn as diplomatic relations are reduced to the level of charges d'affaires.

Economic and trade relations with Britain, already meager, would be pared "to the minimum" under the text, which requires the measures be implemented within two weeks.

The lawmakers also raised the possibility of punishing "other countries that behave in a manner similar to that of Britain."

Relations between the two countries suffered following British action to cut ties with Iranian banks last week.

The banks have been accused of financing Tehran's nuclear weapons program.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office in London described the move as regrettable and warned there would be a "robust" response in consultation with allies.

Europe and the United States tightened economic sanctions on Syria, ramping up international pressure as the UN said more than 4,000 people had died in a crackdown on dissidents.

In a new bout of violence, a Syrian human rights group said troops raided towns and villages in the flashpoint provinces of Homs, Hama and Daraa, killing 16 civilians and detaining at least two dozen others.

At least 4,000 people have now died since anti-government protests broke out in mid-March, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said, warning the real toll could be grimmer still as "the information coming to us is that it's much more".

EU foreign ministers met Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi over lunch in Brussels in a bid to show a united front against President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protesters.

The ministers agreed to work with the League as it implements unprecedented sanctions against Assad's regime.

"They believe that this could have a strong effect on the regime. They are continuing to put the pressure on, we are very keen to support their leadership on that," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after the talks.

For his part, Arabi rejected "any accusation that the Arab League is inviting any intervention" in Syria after Damascus accused members of the pan-Arab organization of pushing for an "internationalization" of the unrest.

The EU slapped a 10th round of sanctions on the regime, adding bans on exporting gas and oil industry equipment to Syria and trading Syrian government bonds in an effort to choke off funding.

The EU will refrain from offering Syria loans at lower rates and longer grace periods than offered on commercial markets, while European firms are barred from selling software that could be used to monitor Internet and telephone communications.

The EU added 12 individuals and 11 entities to a blacklist of people and companies hit by asset freezes and travel bans, diplomats said.

"All this shows, that we Europeans, together with the Arab League, are determined to act against this cruelty and repression," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Renewing a call for Assad to step aside for a democratic transition, the EU ministers warned in a statement that the violent repression risked taking Syria down "a very dangerous path of violence, sectarian clashes and militarization".

Syria meanwhile suspended its free trade agreement with Turkey, the official news agency SANA said, in retaliation for Ankara slapping sanctions on the Damascus regime.

Turkey, one of Syria's closest economic partners, followed in the footsteps of the Arab League on Wednesday in announcing a series of sanctions on the Syrian regime, including a freeze on commercial transactions and a break in links between the Turkish and Syrian central banks.

The United States welcomed the EU sanctions against Syria as well as other measures against Iran, an ally of Damascus, over Tehran's disputed nuclear activities.

"These steps signal once again the resolve of the international community to address the assault on the fundamental rights of the Syrian people by the Assad regime," the White House said.

Washington slapped economic sanctions on a top Syrian general and an uncle of Assad identified by the Treasury Department as a key financial advisor to the Syrian president.

The US measures also hit a defense ministry business, the Military Housing Establishment, and the government-controlled Real Estate Bank, which the Treasury said administers the government's borrowings.

Angry at the sanctions, Syria suspended its participation in the Mediterranean Union, a French initiative inaugurated in 2008 to bolster cooperation between Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.

Meanwhile, the Syrian National Council, a civilian opposition group, said it has agreed to coordinate with the rebel Free Syrian Army in their common struggle against Assad.

"It is agreed that it would be a coordinated movement," the SNC's Khaled Khoja told AFP, in a change of tack from the civilian opposition's previous reluctance to back the armed faction.

He said a meeting in the southern Turkish province of Hatay on November 28 was attended by SNC head Burhan Ghaliun and FSA chief Riyadh al-Asaad, whose forces comprise Syrian deserters.

"The council recognized the Free Syrian Army as a reality, while the army recognized the council as the political representative" of the opposition, Khoja said.

The meeting marked a new step in efforts to unite opposition to Assad, who is under growing pressure to step down.

"We agreed that the duty of the Free Syrian Army is to protect people, but not to attack," said Khoja, a member of the SNC's foreign relations committee.

The FSA's duties, he said, include "protecting minorities, preventing possible conflicts among the factions by sending its troops to conflict areas".

An Iranian general on Saturday threatened retaliation against Israel if any of its nuclear or security sites are attacked.

“If Israeli missiles hit one of our nuclear facilities or other vital centers, then they should know that any part of Israeli territory would be target of our missiles, including their nuclear sites,” General Yadollah Javani of the Revolutionary Guards told ISNA news agency.

“They (Israel) know that we have the capability to do so.” Javani, the former head of the military’s political department, was referring to mounting speculation that Israel would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities after the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had tested designs used to make nuclear warheads.

Iranian political and military officials have warned Israel that it would face retaliation from Shahab-3 missiles that can reach any part of Israel.

Iranian volunteers affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards have held several gatherings in recent days and vowed a harsh reply to any military attacks on nuclear sites.