Arab, international support for Gulf initiative to peacefully settle Yemen’s crisis

Yemen officially welcomes initiative

UAE reiterates support for Bahrain’s measures to enhance security, stability

Syria anti-government protests spread

International calls on Syrian authorities to avoid violence

The Arab League has announced its support to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)'s initiative to reach a peaceful solution to the current crisis in Yemen.

The general secretariat of the Arab League renewed, in a statement, its position calling for respecting the principle of peaceful expression and to not use violence against peaceful legitimate demands of Arab people and their right to claim freedom, reform, development, democratic change and social justice.

The Arab League considered such demands as legitimate ones and must be respected.

Yemen's opposition rejected a Gulf Arab initiative for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, because it appeared to offer him immunity from prosecution, while Saleh himself welcomed the plan.

Gulf Arab foreign ministers meeting in Riyadh said publicly for the first time that the framework of their mediation effort involved Saleh standing down, though it did not say when that would occur.

The ministers called for a meeting of parties to the Yemeni conflict in Saudi Arabia but set no date.

"Who would be a fool to offer guarantees to a regime that kills peaceful protesters? Our principal demand is that Saleh leaves first," opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabry said.

Diplomatic sources say Saleh has dragged his heels for weeks over U.S. attempts to get him to agree to step down and end protests crippling the country since early February, maneuvering to win guarantees that he and his sons do not face prosecution.

With more than 100 protesters killed in clashes with security forces, activists have said they want to see legal action against Saleh and his sons, who occupy key security and political posts.

Tens of thousands filled the streets of Sanaa, Taiz, Hudaida, Ibb and the southeastern province of Hadramaut to protest against the Gulf plan, witnesses said.

General Ali Mohsen, a kinsman of Saleh whose units are protecting protesters in Sanaa, said he welcomed the details of the GCC plan announced in Riyadh.

"He hopes all parties will accept this initiative and not miss this opportunity," a statement from his office said. Shortly after the opposition rejected the Gulf initiative, Saleh's office issued a statement saying he accepted it.

"The presidency welcomes the efforts of our brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council to solve the current crisis in Yemen," the statement said from his office said.

"He (Saleh) has no reservations about transferring power peacefully within the framework of the constitution," it added, in language Saleh has used before to argue he should oversee a transition involving new elections.

Long regarded by the West as a vital ally against al-Qaeda militants, Saleh has warned of civil war and the break-up of Yemen if he is forced to leave power before organizing parliamentary and presidential polls over the next year.

He had sought Saudi mediation for some weeks, but Gulf diplomatic sources said Riyadh was prompted in the end by concern over the deteriorating security in its southern neighbor after Saleh failed to act on the backroom deal struck with U.S. officials on a quick exit.

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, is the key financier of the Yemeni government as well as many Yemeni tribes on its border.

Countries of the region became convinced that Saleh, a shrewd political operator in power since 1978, is an obstacle to stability in a country that overlooks a shipping lane where over 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.

The Gulf statement talked of "the formation of a national unity government under the leadership of the opposition which has the right to form committees ... to draw up a constitution and hold elections."

It said Saleh should hand his authorities over to his vice president and that all parties should "stop all forms of revenge ... and (legal) pursuance, through guarantees offered" -- wording that appeared to offer Saleh assurances of no prosecution for him or his family once he leaves office.

Saleh's deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has said he is not interested, which could open the way to the perennial survivor nominating an interim successor of his own choice.

Even before the protests inspired by the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shiite Muslim insurgency in the north -- violence that has given the Arabian Peninsula branch of al Qaeda more room to operate.

In continued unrest, 11 suspected al Qaeda members, including two foreigners, were killed in a clash with army troops in the southern province of Abyan, seen as a hotbed of al Qaeda activity, a Defense Ministry website said.

Two soldiers were also killed and five were wounded.

Earlier, two soldiers and a militant were killed in another clash in Abyan.

In Syria, protests for greater freedoms spread to Aleppo, the country's second city, where hundreds of university students clashed with police and a smaller protest took place in the capital, rights activists told AFP by telephone.

Meanwhile, thousands of women blocked a stretch of a main coastal road in the north of the country demanding authorities release hundreds of people arrested during a crackdown on the flashpoint towns of Banyas and in Baida, London-based rights activist Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.

And the authorities paraded three suspects on state television, who admitted being members of an "armed terrorist gang, saying they received money and weapons from abroad to fuel unrest in Syria.

In particular, the suspects said they had received arms and weapons from neighboring Lebanon. A Lebanese MP named by one suspect denied any involvement.

One of them, Anas al-Kanj, was heard saying he was told "to incite people to protest, particularly outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus" and in the flashpoint protest towns of Deraa, Latakia and Banyas.

The latest protests come after a deadly weekend of confrontations between security forces and growing protests, during which 30 civilians were killed, according to rights activists.

The government pledged to make some reforms but vowed to use its iron grip to contain the protests that have shaken Syria since March 15, and accuse "armed groups" of inciting the violence.

In Aleppo, 500 students demonstrated at the faculty of literature, and police made arrests after fist fights broke out between the two sides, said Radif Mustafa, president of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights.

"The security forces clashed with the students and four students were arrested," Mustafa told AFP by telephone.

The students called for freedoms in Syria, where the ruling Baath Party has imposed crippling emergency law since it came to power in a coup in 1963 that allow it to ban public gatherings and make arbitrary arrests.

They also "expressed solidarity with the victims of Deraa and Banyas", flashpoint protest towns in the south and north, respectively, said Mustafa.

In Damascus, some 50 students protested at the law faculty demanding greater freedoms, Abdel Karim Rihawi of the Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights said, two days after a sit-in at the science faculty.

"Security forces used batons to disperse the students and some students were arrested," said Rihawi.

The protest at the science faculty was a rare one for Damascus where students appear to have been emboldened by a deadly crackdown last week.

The army has kept a stranglehold on the northern coastal city of Banyas since early last week, when regime agents opened fired on residents, including those in mosques, killing four people and wounding 17, according to witnesses.

The official SANA news agency had said nine soldiers, including two officers were killed when their patrol was ambushed outside Banyas.

In a clear sign of retribution, security forces locked down Banyas and raked the nearby village of Baida with gunfire, witnesses said.

One witness said the gunfire was "intense like rain" while another said Banyas was "surrounded by tanks" and "like a prison" with no one able to enter or leave the town.

Residents also complained of bread shortages and said shops and petrol stations were closed.

A human rights activist told AFP the crackdown on Banyas was "probably aimed at arresting" Anas al-Shuhri, one of the leaders of the pro-democracy protests.

President Bashar al-Assad has promised to launch reforms but his regime has put down the protests with deadly force, triggering international condemnation.

The White House condemned the mounting crackdown on dissent in Syria saying the repression "is outrageous."