By Andrew Hammond
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen will investigate alleged human rights violations that occurred during an uprising last year, officials said on Wednesday, possibly opening the way to prosecution of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his relatives.
Saleh and his immediate family obtained immunity from prosecution under Yemeni law under a U.S.-backed deal sponsored by Yemen's Gulf neighbors last year in return for the veteran president's departure from office. He stepped down in February.
Thousands of protesters have demanded that the immunity be scrapped. The cabinet decision to set up a committee of inquiry followed months of wrangling within the government.
"The committee is responsible for probing the allegations of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that occurred in 2011, impartially and independently," state news agency Saba said.
A government official, who asked not to be named, said the decision emerged from an intense, five-month-long debate in the cabinet, which is divided between members of Saleh's party and his opponents as stipulated by the power transfer deal.
"It was a fight in the cabinet," he said, adding that the outcome was partly due to a "big push" by the United Nations envoy to Yemen, Jamal bin Omar.
The official said the inquiry would investigate whether criminal charges over deaths and injuries could be pressed. It would be complemented by a transitional justice law which parliament could pass this month.
Saleh's successor, Abd-Rabbu Hadi, was expected to issue a decree setting up the inquiry this month, the official said.
Yemen, an impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, faces a tough transition to democracy while battling Islamic militancy.
Saleh is still in Yemen and one of his sons commands the republican guard, but Hadi has begun replacing security and military figures to try to reunify the army, which split into rival factions during the uprising.
More than 2,000 people are thought to have died during the protracted upheaval, some from sniper fire, and more than 20,000 were wounded, the human rights ministry says.
Restoring stability to Yemen has become an international priority after al Qaeda and other Islamist militants gained strength during the chaos of the uprising.
This year the United States has stepped up air strikes on suspected militants using unmanned aircraft on Yemeni territory, provoking resentment among some Yemenis. Ten civilians were killed this month in one such drone strike.
British ambassador Nicholas Hopton praised Hadi's "bold and courageous decisions" to set up the inquiry and to promote the transitional justice law, saying Yemeni factions could now deal with the past, achieve reconciliation and move forward.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Alistair Lyon)