A regional bloc of oil-rich Arab nations along the Gulf, including powerful Saudi Arabia, called on Yemen's president Sunday to step down as part of a deal with the protest movement demanding for his ouster after 32 years.
Keeping up the pressure, tens of thousands of protesters complaining of poverty and corruption marched in the capital, Sanaa, on Sunday, a day after renewed clashes between demonstrators and security forces there. Witnesses said police fired a barrage of tear gas late Saturday and that many demonstrators suffered breathing problems.
The statement, by foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in the Saudi capital, called on President Ali Abdullah Saleh transfer his powers to his vice president in return for promises that neither he nor his family would be prosecuted for any crimes committed under his leadership.
That falls short of protesters' demands, which include seeing Saleh face justice. And Saleh himself has so far refused to immediately step down, saying he wants to first be certain the country is in "safe hands," suggesting the already fragile and impoverished country could fall into serious tumult without him.
"The transfer of power ought to be in an easy and peaceful manner that would avoid sliding into chaos and violence, and as part of a national consensus," said a final statement from the Gulf council.
The embattled president, once a key U.S. ally in the war against the al-Qaida terror network, has tried to cling to power despite two months of near-daily protests calling for his resignation.
Last week, he rejected an earlier mediation offer by the Gulf Cooperation Council, saying the group was meddling in Yemen's affairs. The council had invited Saleh and Yemen's opposition groups to Saudi Arabia for talks on its proposal, similar to the one it endorsed on Sunday.
A diplomat at the Riyadh meeting said the bloc repeated an offer to mediate between Saleh and his opponents. He requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.
"All parties must commit to ending all forms of revenge, pursuit and prosecution through guarantees to that effect," the statement said.
The statement also called for the formation of a national unity government headed by the opposition to steer the country through a transitional period.
Protesters in Sanaa expressed reservations about the plan, saying Saleh was buying time, and refusing to absolve him from prosecution.
"This is not new. We had accepted the Gulf offer before on condition that Saleh step down, along with all his family members and sons who are in power," said Wassim al-Qarshi, an organizer of the Sanaa protest. He said the protesters want a transitional presidential council to prepare the country for elections and a new constitution.
The protesters called for nationwide protests Monday, and the Interior Ministry warned against taking to the streets in violation of the law that requires protests to be authorized.
On Saturday, a senior adviser to Saleh met in Riyadh with the Saudi foreign minister, a sign that negotiations are continuing.
The Gulf council consists of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain.
In rejecting the initial mediation offer, Saleh appeared to have been particularly ruffled by a comment by Qatar's prime minister last week that "we hope to reach an agreement that includes the resignation" of Saleh.
Saleh has offered to step down at the end of this year if an acceptable transfer of power is reached, but the opposition fears he is just stalling for time.
Anti-government protests inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt erupted in Yemen in early February, and more than 120 people have been killed since then in clashes between protesters and security forces.
On Sunday, demonstrators in Sanaa initially planned to march to the United Nations mission, which is not far from the presidential palace. However, they stopped short, fearing a violent government response and eventually returned to their base outside Sanaa's university.
The southern port city of Aden was paralyzed for a second day Sunday, with government offices, schools and shops closed as residents responded to the opposition's call for civil disobedience.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands held rallies across the country. In Sanaa and the southern city of Taiz, protests turned violent and the director of a field hospital in Taiz said 580 people were injured Saturday.
Associated Press writer Abdullah al-Shihri contributed to this report from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.