By Mohamed Sudam and Jason Benham
SANAA/RIYADH (Reuters) - Gulf Arab foreign ministers meet in Saudi Arabia on Sunday to see whether an offer to mediate in Yemen's political crisis can succeed after a war of words between President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Qatar.
Saleh initially accepted an offer by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states including Qatar, as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to hold talks with opposition parties after two months of protests against his 32-year-long rule.
But on Friday, Saleh -- long regarded by the West as a vital ally against al Qaeda militants -- reacted angrily to comments from Qatar's prime minister saying the mediation would lead to him standing down.
"We don't get our legitimacy from Qatar or from anyone else ... We reject this belligerent intervention," Saleh told tens of thousands of supporters in the capital. On Saturday Yemen said it would withdraw its ambassador from Doha.
Sunday's meeting in Riyadh was to evaluate the official response of Saleh and Yemen's opposition coalition to a Gulf mediation effort that Yemen has viewed positively because it is spearheaded by its Saudi ally.
A Gulf diplomat said Yemen wanted assurances that the GCC would only mediate and not dictate any outcomes. Yemen is not part of the six-member council, which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"If there is a meeting it will be under the auspices of the GCC secretariat under one condition that the GCC will not get involved in the final decision," he said. "The Yemenis won't agree to the talks in Saudi unless they get a promise from the GCC that they won't get involved."
Yemen's foreign minister said on Saturday Qatar had spoken out of line by saying the talks were about removing Saleh, who has talked of his desire for a "dignified exit."
The Qatari comments "gave the impression that the issue had already been resolved," Abubakr al-Qirbi was quoted as saying by Saba, Yemen's official news agency.
"He has announced personally that the Yemeni government is studying the Gulf initiative and has not declared any rejection of it," he said.
Qatar hosts the leading pan-Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera, whose Yemen correspondents have had their credentials revoked for what Sanaa calls bias. Saudi Arabia is a key financier of the Yemeni government as well as many Yemeni tribes on its border.
Concerned about any deals under the Gulf mediation plan that would delay Saleh's departure, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Sanaa on Sunday.
"No, no to compromise," chanted the crowd as they marched in the streets surrounding a weeks-long sit-in near Sanaa University.
SAUDI HELP SOUGHT
Saleh has sought Saudi mediation for some weeks, but analysts say that both Saudi Arabia and United States are now keen to arrange a quick exit for him.
Diplomats and opposition sources say he is maneuvering to ensure that he and his sons do not face the threat of prosecution, the fate of the deposed rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, and the Saudi mediation could give him that guarantee.
Saleh, a veteran political survivor, has warned of civil war and the break-up of Yemen if he is forced to leave power before organizing new parliamentary and presidential elections over the next year. He has seen a succession of generals, diplomats and tribal leaders announce their opposition to him but also has organized large public displays of support in recent weeks.
But the killing of more than 100 protesters by security forces has begun to convince countries of the region that Saleh is now an obstacle to stability in a country that overlooks a shipping lane where over 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
Some 40 percent of Yemen's 23 million people live on less than $2 a day and one-third face chronic hunger. Exasperation with state repression and rampant corruption have poured fuel on the fire of the pro-democracy movement.
Even before the protests Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi'ite Muslim insurgency in the north -- violence that has given the Arabian Peninsula branch of al Qaeda more room to operate.
Violent clashes have continued almost daily over the past week, with at least 27 people killed, with security forces using live ammunition and tear gas to rout protesters.
In continued unrest, seven civilians were wounded when they were caught in the crossfire as army units fought Islamic militants who have taken control of several areas in the restive southern province of Abyan, a local official said.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Amena Bakr in Dubai; writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Jon Boyle)