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Yemen prez agrees to step down

BY ABDULLAH AL-SHIHRI

AND BEN HUBBARD

The Associated Press

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed yesterday to step down amid a fierce uprising to oust the authoritarian leader after 33 years in power.

The United States and its powerful Gulf allies pressed for the deal, concerned that a security collapse in the impoverished Arab nation was allowing an active al-Qaida franchise to gain a firmer foothold.

Saleh is the fourth Arab leader toppled in the wave of Arab Spring uprisings this year, after longtime dictators fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The deal gives Saleh immunity from prosecution, contradicting a key demand of Yemen's opposition protesters.

Seated beside Saudi King Abdullah in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Saleh signed the U.S.- backed deal hammered out by powerful Gulf Arab neighbors to transfer power in 30 days to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. That will be followed by presidential elections within 90 days.

Dressed smartly in a dark business suit with a matching striped tie and handkerchief, he smiled as he signed the deal, then clapped his hands a few times. He then spoke for a few minutes to members of the Saudi royal families and international diplomats, promising his ruling party "will be cooperative" in working with a new unity government.

"This disagreement for the last 10 months has had a big impact on Yemen in the realms of culture, development, politics, which led to a threat to national unity and destroyed what has been built in past years," he said.

Protesters camped out in a public square near San'a's university immediately rejected the deal, chanting, "No immunity for the killer." They vowed to continued protests.

President Barack Obama welcomed Saleh's decision, calling it an important step forward for Yemen. The United States would stand by the Yemeni people "as they embark on this historic transition" to realize their aspirations for a new beginning, he said, and he acknowledged "important work" done by Gulf allies.

Saleh has clung to power despite the daily mass protests and a June assassination attempt that left him wounded and forced him to go to Saudi Arabia for three months of hospital treatment. He was burned over much of his body and had shards of wood embedded in his chest by the explosion that struck his palace mosque as he prayed.

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