GCC foreign ministers resume efforts in Abu Dhabi meeting to stop conflicts in Yemen

UN Security Council backs Gulf mediation efforts

Syria steps up emergency, abolishes state security court, calls for end to protests

Jordan authorities threaten to use force against anyone breaching security, launch arrest campaign

Bahrain’s authorities refrains from measures against Lebanese expats

Unrest continues in Iran’s Ahvaz

The meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers in Abu Dhabi was successful, a senior Yemeni official in the ruling party was quoted as saying by the state news agency Saba on Wednesday.

Ahmed bin Daghar, the assistant secretary-general of Yemen's ruling party General People's Congress (GPC) and one of the representatives of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the GCC meeting in Abu Dhabi, said upon his arrival in Sanaa on Wednesday that the meeting focused on the general principles of the GCC initiative and the practical steps to achieve it.

"We talked about ways and means to achieve stability in Yemen and how to transfer power peacefully", he said.

The Abu Dhabi meeting, which was held late Tuesday, was chaired by Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan.

In their latest meeting on April 10, the GCC foreign ministers floated a proposal calling for Saleh to transfer power to his vice president and form a unity government headed by the opposition.

Meanwhile, the GCC foreign ministers issued a statement following the meeting with Saleh's delegation on Wednesday, saying "Saleh's representatives submitted to the GCC meeting an initiative representing the viewpoint of the GPC to address the current situation in Yemen and to tackle a compromise solution with the opposition."

The statement stressed the importance of exerting further efforts to ensure maintaining the stability and security of Yemen.

"The discussions with both delegations of Saleh and opposition were constructive and showed that desire of each side to reach an agreement that meets the Yemeni people's aspirations of stable and secure life," the statement added.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Tuesday urged all concerned parties in unrest-hit Yemen to exercise restraint after it failed to agree on a public statement at its first meeting held in New York to address the deteriorating situation in the Gulf nation.

The UNSC meeting was called by Germany in wake of the popular uprising against the decades-long rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and the continuing brutal crackdowns on the anti-government demonstrators by security forces.

The Council members were briefed during Tuesday's closed-door meeting about the present situation in Yemen by a representative of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who has just returned from the crisis-hit Gulf nation.

After the meeting, German Ambassador Peter Wittig told reporters that the Council members had expressed concerns about the deteriorating situation in Yemen and called on all parties "to exercise restraint and to enter into a comprehensive dialogue" for resolving the crisis.

"Most of us in the council expressed explicitly support for the mediation efforts of the Gulf Cooperation Council," Wittig added.

Meanwhile, reports quoting unnamed Council diplomats suggested that failure to issue a final statement after Tuesday's meeting was due to objections from China and Russia. The two permanent veto-power holding members of the council have been reluctant in the past to involve in international affairs of other nations.

US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, told reporters after the meeting that "there were several delegations that wanted instruction from (their) capitals". This implies that a statement would be issued in the coming days after the envoys discuss the issue with their governments.

Stating that "several themes emerged, including a call for restraint and an end to the violence", Rice added that there were concerns among Council members that the ongoing violence in Yemen could have adverse effects on regional and international peace and security.

Tuesday's UNSC meeting came hours after three people were killed in clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters in Yemen. While two people were killed when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in capital Sanaa, another person was killed in a police crackdown in the southern Taiz province.

It is estimated that more than 120 people have been killed in crackdowns by Yemeni security forces since the protests began on February 11. The protesters want President Saleh to step down from power immediately and are calling for economic and political freedom.

Separately, Foreign Ministers from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries are to meet in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday to discuss the Yemen issue. It follows a series of meetings with government and opposition representatives as part of efforts to resolve the crisis in Yemen.

Last week, the Yemeni opposition had rejected a plan proposed by the six-nation GCC for Saleh to step down in exchange of immunity from prosecution for him and his family.

They stressed that the offer for granting immunity to the president and his family are unjust and that Saleh's departure was non-negotiable.

Saleh became leader of North Yemen in 1978, and has ruled the Republic of Yemen as its President since the merger of the North and South in 1990. Until recently, Saleh was a firm ally of the United States in its fight against a growing al-Qaeda insurgency in the region. He is currently under immense international pressure to step down in the wake of the uprising.

The United States said earlier this month that it welcomed the GCC initiative to resolve the ongoing crisis in Yemen, but warned that all concerned parities must actively participate in the negotiations for it to succeed.

In Damascus, Syria's embattled president was to issue a decree lifting emergency rule on Wednesday, a daily close to his regime reported, as rights groups said the measure falls short of much-needed reforms.

The news that President Bashar al-Assad would bypass parliament to fast-track the move was reported in Al-Watan newspaper a day after his cabinet approved a bill to rescind almost 50 years of a state of emergency.

"The presidency of the republic will today enact three decrees on the lifting of the emergency law, the abolition of the State Security Court and the regulation of peaceful demonstrations," the daily quoted an unnamed senior official as saying.

"This package is part of a strategic program of political reforms aimed at strengthening the democratic process, broadening citizen participation (in politics), consolidating national unity and the security of the homeland and its citizens," Al-Watan added.

Repeal of the emergency law has been a central demand of reformists since protests broke out on March 15.

The emergency law restricts many civil liberties, including public gatherings and freedom of movement, and allows the "arrest of anyone suspected of posing a threat to security."

Around 220 people have been killed by security forces or plainclothes police since the start of the protest movement, according to the rights watchdog Amnesty International.

At least 10 people were reported killed on Tuesday alone in clashes in the central city of Homs, where 20,000 people staged an overnight sit-in protest demanding Assad's ouster.

Despite the cabinet decision on the emergency law, more than 2,000 people defied the authorities and protested against Assad's 11-year regime in the northern coastal city of Banias late on Tuesday, witnesses said.

And only hours later, the Syrian authorities reportedly arrested opposition figure Mahmud Issa in Homs, using powers granted to them under the state of emergency, in force since 1963.

"A patrol of the political security services arrested (regime) opponent Mahmud Issa in Homs after he gave an interview to Al-Jazeera television," said Rami Abdul Rahman of a Syrian human rights group.

In his interview, Issa had called for the authorities to investigate and arrest those behind the killing of General Abdo Khodr al-Tellawi, a victim of Tuesday's clashes around Homs.

The official SANA news agency said Tuesday that "armed criminal gangs... came upon General Abdo Khodr al-Tellawi, his two children and his nephew, and killed them in cold blood" and "mutilated" their bodies.

Assad's regime has blamed "armed criminal gangs" for deadly violence since pro-reform demonstrations erupted in mid-March across Syria, one of the Middle East's most autocratic countries.

Abdel Rahman said later that a senior security official in Banias, Amjad Abbas, was dismissed and will face justice after appearing in a video showing security forces clashing with protesters on April 12.

But the latest overture by Assad's government has been roundly criticized as failing to go far enough.

Amnesty International, which says the crackdown has cost 26 lives in recent days, cautioned in a statement that the "pledges ring hollow."

The London-based international rights watchdog called on Assad to "back up his pledge to introduce reforms with immediate, concrete action to end the continuing wave of killings of protesters by his security forces."

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights and its branch in Syria, the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, said the move to lift emergency rule "falls short of significant human rights reforms."

"Evidence in the field also demonstrates the hardening of the response of the security forces to the spreading protests," they said in a statement, adding security forces had killed at least 30 demonstrators in Homs and Latakia, another key protest centre, between Friday and Monday.

Britain and the United States have condemned the use of force and called for even broader reforms, while Russia voiced its "complete support" for the changes that have been announced so far.

In Amman, Jordan has detained 136 people on "terrorism" charges a week after scores were hurt when Islamist Salafist protesters clashed with police in the northern city of Zarqa, a police spokesman said on Friday.

"The involvement of 136 people brought before the prosecutor of the State Security Court for terrorism and unrest has been proven, and it was decided to detain them," spokesman Mohammad Khatib said, quoted by Petra news agency.

Khatib spoke of the "the involvement of 100 other people on the run who will be referred to the attorney general of state security once they are arrested."

The Salafists, who espouse an austere form of Sunni Islam, clashed with security forces during a demonstration in Zarqa, northeast of Amman, on April 15, leaving 91 people wounded.

An investigation showed the demonstrators had carried out the attack armed with "sharp weapons including swords, axes, daggers, sticks and iron bars," said Khatib.

They "caused damage to public and private property... caused trouble... by beating and stabbing a number of citizens and members of security forces," he said.

The spokesman said the accused forced shops to close and took control of the Omar Bin al-Khattab mosque in Zarqa "causing fear and frightening the faithful."

Unlike other protests calling for reform that have rocked Jordan in recent weeks, the Salafist demonstrators have been demanding the release of 90 Islamist prisoners.

Among those they want freed is Abu Mohammed al-Maqdessi, the one-time mentor of slain Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who hailed from Zarqa.

The Salafists, who seek a return to practices common in the early days of Islam, have been protesting for several weeks, also staging demonstrations in the capital.

Jordanian Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit has accused the Islamists of belonging to an armed organization, and said his government would take a tough line against them.

In Manama, Authorities in Bahrain have eased security measures against Lebanese expatriates in the Gulf state, following high-level diplomatic discussions between the two countries.

The decision to allow Lebanese to stay in Bahrain came days after authorities in Manama expelled around 20 Lebanese expatriates from the country and confiscated the passports of more than 100 Lebanese nationals.

Most of the passports that were confiscated before the deporting of the mainly Shiite Lebanese expatriates were returned.

The National News Agency said Tuesday that Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati thanked his Bahraini counterpart for his cooperation on the issue of Lebanese expatriates.

Mikati also emphasized to Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifah Ibn Salman al-Khalifah his commitment to the kingdom’s stability and its relations with Lebanon. “The Lebanese living in Bahrain are guards to the country’s [Bahrain] sovereignty,” Mikati was quoted a saying by the NNA.

In a telephone call with The Daily Star Tuesday, the director general of the Foreign Ministry in Beirut described the development as “a great achievement for both countries.”

“The Bahraini authorities have stopped expelling the Lebanese and confiscating their passports after Beirut authorities held several discussions, away from the media, with the Bahraini kingdom,” said Haitham Jomaa.

Security forces in Bahrain called on more than a dozen Lebanese to leave the country following the unrest caused by Shiite-led demonstrations in Manama, citing “security reasons.”

Following the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain to contain the unrest, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Bahrain of “murder.”

Nasrallah also vowed to support the opposition in their demands for more rights from the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, a Shiite majority country.

Nasrallah’s speech sparked a spat between Lebanon and Bahrain, threatening diplomatic relations.

But Jomaa said relations between Beirut and Manama were brotherly and would remain good as they are both members of the Arab League.

“The ministry will work to help the Lebanese who were expelled return to their work and normal lives in Bahrain,” Jomaa added.

Meanwhile, Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has warned the United Nations of the possible spread of unrest in Iran's Khuzestan Province, home to most of the country's ethnic Arab minority. Ebadi sent a letter to UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay in which she describes a deadly crackdown by Iranian security forces last week on a peaceful protest in Khuzestan's capital, Ahvaz.

The April 15 protest, which some dubbed "Ahvaz Day of Rage," was aimed at protesting what participants say is discrimination and injustice against ethnic Arabs, who make up about 3 percent of Iran's population.

The event was reportedly planned with the help of social media sites, including Facebook, by political groups and young people both inside and outside the country who are said to have been inspired by popular uprisings in Arab countries.

Iranian officials have praised street demonstrations across the Arab world as an "Islamic awakening" but themselves have used force against Iranian protesters who have taken to the streets to demonstrate for democracy and human rights.

Force was also Iranian authorities' response to the April 15 protest in Ahvaz.

In her letter, Ebadi says that at least 12 people were killed in the clashes, 20 others were injured, and dozens were arrested.

Human rights activists told RFE/RL they have received reports that there were more than 150 arrests, including a number of intellectuals, artists, and women's rights activists. They said the province has been turned into "a military base" by security forces who have warned activists not to speak to the media.

Ebadi urges the UN to push for the unconditional release of those arrested in order to prevent widespread unrest in the province. She tells Pillay that ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan have been living in poor conditions and have endured discrimination for more than 30 years.