Yemen opposition skeptic over Saleh’s decision for deputy to launch power transfer dialogue

Damascus totally rejects Arab League statement

UN appoints international committee to investigate Syria incidents

Arab countries call on Syria to start dialogue after stopping killing machine

Russia says to back UN Security Council resolution against Syria if it involves no sanctions

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has authorized his vice president to sign a power transition plan after a dialogue with the opposition, the state news agency Saba said on Monday, a move that could hasten the end of Saleh's 33-year rule.

Yet the main political opposition coalition, impatient with Saleh's repeated earlier refusals to sign the Gulf-brokered pact, expressed skepticism about the presidential decree, which called for yet more talks before any signing.

Nevertheless, the decree "irrevocably" empowered Vice President Abbd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan to transfer power from Saleh.

"(The vice president) is given the necessary constitutional authorities to conduct a dialogue with signatories of the GCC initiative and agree on a lasting mechanism to implement and sign it on (Saleh's) behalf under regional and international auspices, resulting in early presidential elections," it said.

Saleh, 69, has been recuperating in neighboring Saudi Arabia since he was severely wounded in a bomb attack in June. He had backed out of signing the transition deal three times before the assassination attempt inside his presidential compound.

Months of fruitless negotiating had frustrated tens of thousands of anti-Saleh protesters as daily demonstrations and sporadic clashes paralyzed the impoverished Arab state.

The United States and oil giant Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by al-Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, have pushed for the GCC deal for months, wary that growing turmoil is giving more room for Islamist militants to operate.

Hours after the decree was issued, motorcycle-riding masked gunmen shot dead a son of opposition leader Mohammed Ashal from the Islamist party Islah in Sana’a, a family member said.

The killing followed the assassination on Sunday of an army brigadier general in the capital, and an attempt to kill a colonel who led troops fighting al-Qaeda-linked militants in the south.

A Yemeni analyst said Saleh's authorization to Hadi appeared sufficient to get the GCC plan enacted.

"This is enough to ensure that the Gulf initiative is implemented and that early presidential elections are held, and will safeguard Yemen from armed conflict," said Ali Seif Hassan.

But the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), appeared wary of the conditions set by Saleh's decree.

"Any talk of a dialogue before signing the Gulf initiative is either an attempt at wasting time or deceiving public opinion," said JMP spokesman Mohammed Qahtan.

The coalition vowed that mass protests would continue.

"The JMP calls on the young men and women of the revolution to continue escalating the peaceful revolution until the whole regime falls," it said in a statement.

Violence is unsettling many parts of Yemen. Air raids and fighting shook the flashpoint town of Arhab, just 40 km (25 miles) north of Sana’a, where tribesmen have thrown their weight behind the protesters and have clashed frequently with troops who have a military base there.

Four armed tribesmen were killed while trying to block an advance by the Republican Guard, opposition sources said.

Saleh's formal departure may still be months away even if the transition agreement goes through.

Under modifications recently agreed under a U.N.-mediated "operational mechanism," he would transfer powers to his vice president, after which presidential elections must be held within three months.

But as Saleh has only transferred authority for negotiating the transition deal, it appears that the three-month period will only kick off once Hadi signs the GCC plan in his stead.

If the deal is signed, a newly elected president, expected to be Hadi, would head a two-year interim unity government that would draft a new constitution and negotiate with Shiite Muslim rebels in the north and armed separatists in the south.

Meanwhile, Syria rejected an Arab League statement demanding an end to the bloodshed in the country as the organization’s chief waited for a green light to travel to Damascus.

In a diplomatic note to the organization’s secretariat seen by AFP, Syria said the statement amounted to "a clear violation ... of the principles of the Arab League charter and of the foundations of joint Arab action."

The Syrian delegation protested that the declaration was issued "despite the meeting having closed with an agreement that no statement would be published or statement made to the press."

The statement contained "unacceptable and biased language," the note said, adding Damascus would act as if it had never been published.

The Arab League announced a peace initiative aimed at solving the crisis in Syria where more than 2,000 people have been killed in anti-regime protests, to be delivered in person by its secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi.

The 22-member organization’s foreign ministers at a meeting on Saturday night called in the statement for an "end to the spilling of blood and [for Syria] to follow the way of reason before it is too late."

They expressed their "concern faced with the grave developments on the Syrian scene which have claimed thousands of victims and wounded."

The foreign ministers also called for respecting "the right of the Syrian people to live in security and of their legitimate aspirations for political and social reforms."

Arabi said on Sunday that he was awaiting a Syrian invitation to travel to Damascus. "I'm waiting for the response of Syria's government," he told journalists in the Egyptian capital, adding he was ready to leave immediately.

The United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday appointed three experts to probe alleged abuses in Syria, where the number of people killed since the start of the Syrian Government's crackdown on protesters earlier this year has now reportedly reached at least 2,600.

Sergio Pinheiro of Brazil will chair the independent commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Syria since March, when the pro-democracy protests began.

Pinheiro, a former professor and human rights expert for the Council, will be joined by Yakin Ertürk of Turkey, who is currently a professor of sociology and former UN official dealing with women’s issues, and Karen AbuZayd of the United States, who most recently served as head of the UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees.

The Geneva-based Council decided three weeks ago to dispatch a commission of inquiry after considering the report of a fact-finding mission by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The report outlined a litany of Government abuses ranging from murder, enforced disappearances, deprivation of liberty and the torture even of children to an apparent “shoot-to-kill” policy against protesters with snipers posted on rooftops.

As the Council opened its 18th session on Monday, UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay told the 47-member body that, according to reliable sources on the ground, the number of those killed since the onset of the unrest in mid-March has now reached at least 2,600.

In addition to investigating the alleged human rights violations, the commission is tasked with establishing the facts and circumstances that may amount to such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and, where possible, identifying those responsible to ensure that perpetrators of violations, including those that may constitute crimes against humanity, are held accountable.

The commission is due to make public its findings to the Council as soon as possible, but no later than the end of November.

Russia has rejected Western calls for wider sanctions on Syria over its violent crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad, in which the United Nations said 2,600 people have been killed.

A day after France described the lack of a firm U.N. stance against Damascus as a scandal, President Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday recent U.S. and European sanctions on Syria meant "additional pressure now is absolutely not needed in this direction."

Russia, which has a naval base in Syria and major oil and gas concessions, and China -- both veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council -- have resisted efforts by Washington and its European allies to toughen the international response to Syria's repression of nearly six months of protests.

Assad has reacted to the uprising, inspired by revolts which have toppled three North African leaders this year, with military assaults on protest centers and mass arrests.

On Monday, residents and local activists said Syrian forces killed at least 22 civilians, including a father and a son in the town of Rastan near Homs and 15 villagers in raids in the countryside around Hama in what they said was one of the biggest military assaults since the uprising broke out.

At least 2,000 troops backed by dozens of armored vehicles fired machineguns at random and stormed several villages and towns in the al-Ghab Plain, agricultural land northwest of Hama, they said.

Residents and activists had reported earlier that several thousand soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles had massed in the last 24 hours in areas north of Hama which had seen large protests calling for Assad's removal.

Egypt added to growing criticism of the crackdown by fellow Arab nations. "The solution must be through negotiations and dialogue," Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr said in an interview with Egyptian state television.

Damascus blames armed groups for the violence. Assad's media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, speaking on a trip to Moscow on Monday, gave a lower death toll than the United Nations and said half of the fatalities were among security forces.

"According to our information, 700 people were killed on the side of the army and police and 700 on the side of the insurgents," Shaaban told reporters through a translator.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the United Nations figure was based on "reliable sources on the ground."

"The number of those killed since the onset of the unrest in mid-March ... has now reached at least 2,600," Pillay told the U.N. Human Rights Council.

She did not identify the sources. Syria has barred Pillay's investigation team and most foreign journalists from entering the country. Syria had also repeatedly blocked UN efforts to get human rights monitors into the country, UN humanitarian affairs chief Valerie Amos said.

The United Nations on Monday named a three-member panel of international experts to investigate human rights violations including possible crimes against humanity since the protests began.

Sergio Pinheiro of Brazil will lead the commission of inquiry, which the U.N. Human Rights Council agreed to set up last month to probe arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and killings and report back by the end of November.

France, Britain, the United States, Germany and Portugal have circulated a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that called for sanctions against Assad, influential relatives and close associates, but it met resistance from Russia and China.

"I think it's a scandal not to have a clear position of the U.N. in such a terrible crisis," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Sunday.

"We think that the regime has lost its legitimacy. We think that it's too late to implement a level of reform. We should adopt in New York a very clear resolution condemning the violence."

Medvedev said on Monday Russia believed any resolution must be "tough but balanced, and addressed to both sides in Syria," and that it must not automatically lead to further sanctions because "there is already a large number of sanctions against Syria."

Syrian demonstrators have demanded international protection to stop civilian killings, but there has been no hint in the West of any appetite for military action along the lines of the NATO bombing that helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Intervention would be a daunting prospect in a country in the heart of the volatile Middle East. Syria has three times Libya's population, supports Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups and has a strong alliance with Iran. It remains formally at war with Israel, retains influence in Lebanon and has a sizeable Kurdish minority in its east.

Assad has announced some reforms such as ending emergency law and launching a "national dialogue." Opponents say these have made little difference.

Among hundreds of Syrians arrested in recent days was leading psychoanalyst Rafah Nashed, 66, who has been treating people traumatized by the mounting repression, her friends said.

Three lecturers at Aleppo University were also arrested on Monday in the northern city, activists said, as the authorities stepped up arrests against members of the professional class critical of the crackdown.

Security police also arrested overnight Ahmad al-Zu'bi, professor of medicine at Damascus University, who has been helping set up makeshift clinics to treat demonstrators attacked by security forces, with hospitals becoming off-limits for many of the wounded because of raids on medical facilities to arrest injured protesters, rights campaigners said.