SANA'A // Yemen's opposition parties asked diplomats from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) yesterday to spell out whether President Ali Abdullah Saleh would hand over power early under a GCC proposal to end the country's protests.
Gulf Arab foreign ministers said this week they would invite Mr Saleh and the opposition coalition to attend transition-of-power talks in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is a key financier of Yemen and analysts say Mr Saleh trusts the Saudis.
The opposition rejected on Monday a GCC statement on the framework for talks, because it appeared to offer Mr Saleh a chance to avoid any future prosecution. The protest movement has been demanding since February that the president be liable to legal proceedings after leaving office.
An opposition delegation met the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait yesterday seeking clarification of the GCC understanding of a "transfer of power", which does not specify a schedule.
"We want written details on how power will be transferred from the president to his deputy," said Mohammed al-Mutawakkil, a leader in the opposition coalition.
"Does that mean all his authorities or some of them? If he stays in his position but without authorities, does that mean he will have the right to interfere in government, army and security decisions? During what time frame will he then leave?"
Opposition source said talks could start as early as Saturday in Riyadh, with a government delegation headed by Saleh's deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and an opposition team including party leaders and some youth activists.
Mr Saleh accepted the Gulf framework, after state media initially suggested the government would reject it.
A transfer of power could technically last until the next presidential elections scheduled for 2013. Mr Saleh has offered new parliamentary and presidential elections this year, but says he should stay in power to oversee the change or hand over to "safe hands".
Some in the opposition, which includes Islamists, leftists and Arab nationalists, are prepared for Mr Saleh to stay in power for months.
General Ali Mohsen, a kinsman of Mr Saleh whose units are protecting protesters in Sana'a, has welcomed the GCC plan.
South Yemenis, who complain of marginalisation after a civil war with the north led by Mr Saleh in 1994, warned that "any future political arrangements must give a main role to the southerners, bearing in mind the south's size, resources and large coastline," in the words of a statement from southerner ministers and parliamentarians.
The opposition worries that Mr Saleh, a shrewd political operator who has been in power since 1978, will still control the process even if he agrees to stand down immediately after mediation in Riyadh.
Mr Saleh's vice-president Mr Hadi has said he is not interested in taking over even temporarily, which could open the way for Mr Saleh to nominate an interim successor of his own choice.
Sunday's GCC 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".
Mr Saleh chaired a meeting of coalition allies yesterday that blamed the opposition for protests throughout the country. More than 100 people have died in clashes with security forces since February.
Saudi Arabia and Western countries had for many years backed Mr Saleh as their man to fight al Qa'eda militants, who have used Yemen as a base to launch attacks on Saudi and US territory.
But many in the region are now convinced that Mr Saleh is an obstacle to stability in a country that overlooks a shipping lane where more than three million barrels of oil pass daily.