UNITED NATIONS — Yemen’s foreign minister on Tuesday said the opposition’s refusal to accept the results of the 2006 presidential election was to blame for the unrest in the country and warned that, unchecked, the tension could escalate into a civil war.
Abu Bakr al-Qidri also told the United Nations General Assembly that President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains committed to a U.S.-backed Gulf Cooperation Council initiative as a means to resolving a crisis that has left hundreds dead over the past seven months in the Arab world’s poorest nation.
The foreign minister’s remarks spoke a day after the U.N. Security Council urged all sides in Yemen to reject violence and take urgent steps toward a political transition, offering its support for the GCC plan that calls on Saleh to resign and hand over power to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Saleh — who returned recently from Saudi Arabia where he was recovering from injuries sustained months earlier during a rocket attack on a mosque in which he was praying — has said before that he intends to sign the deal, only to back away from the move at the last minute.
Al-Qidri said that the opposition groups, realizing that they were not going to get into office through the ballot box after the 2006 presidential elections, “turned to maneuvers, including violence, that threaten (to lead to) the outbreak of civil war and devastating conflicts in Yemen.”
“The opposition powers used the tidal wave of change being witnessed by Arab countries to prevent Yemen from achieving democratic change through elections,” he said. “However, we respected the demands of the youth and we started a dialogue with them in order to respond to their request” for reform.
Human Rights Watch said the speech “flies in the face of reality.”
“If they are serious about upholding human rights, the Yemeni authorities should stop security forces from shooting peaceful protesters, allow an international inquiry into the bloodshed, and let the United Nations establish a human rights monitoring office in Yemen,” the organization said in a statement.
Al-Qidri said that Yemen “adheres to the initiative by the GCC as a foundation for (resolving) the political crisis,” adding that Saleh has asked the vice president to work with the Gulf states to “achieve a mechanism in order to guarantee a smooth and democratic transition of power.”
The remarks echoed those of Saleh who, in his first public speech since his return, said on Sunday that those who are “chasing power” should go to the polls instead of the streets.
Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 33 years, has come under tremendous and mounting pressure from street protests and neighboring Arab nations to transfer power.
In his televised address, he said he was committed to the deal drafted by the GCC, which includes Gulf powerhouse Saudi Arabia, but his opponents dismissed his offer as a stalling tactic to allow him to consolidate his hold on power.
The mass protests that rolled into Yemen after taking root and ousting the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt have been particularly devastating for the impoverished nation.
Al-Qidri said the country had lost over $2 billion in the months since the protests began — a hefty sum for a nation with few resources aside from limited quantities of oil on which it relies on for revenue.
In addition, the Arabian Peninsula country, which was united in 1990 after a grueling war between the south and the north, is grappling with the influence of al-Qaida.
The terror group has capitalized on the deteriorating security and the ongoing conflict to make bold grabs for power in several regions, including capturing entire towns. Its presence and ability to operate relatively freely in Yemen is a source of major concern for the United States as several nearly successful terror plots against the U.S. have originated in Yemen.
Saleh was seen as a key, if somewhat unreliable, ally by Washington in its fight against terrorism and al-Qidri referenced the concerns about terrorism in calling on the international community to help Yemen through a “comprehensive global strategy” that would build the country’s “national capacities so as to fight extremism and terrorist ideology.”
He said such a plan did not hinge on military action, but on helping the country with political, social and economic efforts that could address some of the key factors that contribute to the rise of extremism. That would include, presumably, dealing with youth unemployment that, in Yemen, stands at over 35 percent.