Yemen’s opposition parties have rejected calls to enter a national unity government with Ali Abdullah Saleh, casting doubt on a plan designed by the country’s Gulf neighbours to resolve its worsening political crisis and bring the president’s rule to an end.

More than 100 demonstrators are reported to have been killed since protests swept the country after the downfall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak this year. The defection of a senior military commander to the protesters’ side last month has sparked fears of confrontation between his units and those still loyal to the regime.

The Gulf Arab countries, backed by the US, unveiled a plan last week for the formation of a national unity government. Under this proposal the president would resign after 30 days in exchange for “guarantees” – understood to mean immunity from prosecution for him and his family.

Elections would then take place within 60 days of his resignation. All parties are required to withdraw “instigators of political and security tensions”. This has been taken to mean that street demonstrations should stop.

Mr Saleh has accepted the plan but opposition parties have voiced concern. The JMP, a coalition of opposition parties, says it has accepted the Gulf Arab countries’ mediation initiative. But its lead negotiator, Yassin Said Noman, told the Financial Times on Sunday that he had “serious” reservations.

Mr Noman said they did not want to enter into a national unity government headed by Mr Saleh. “The idea that President Saleh would step down in 30 days means nothing to us. We would like the current government to continue in its current form until the president steps down – and we would like that to be as soon as possible,” said Mr Noman. “Only after the president steps down can a genuine national dialogue take place.”

Mr Saleh has said that he is willing to hand over power only to “safe hands”, and many in the opposition do not trust him keep to his commitment to stand down, pointing to a previous promise he made not to stand in the 2006 presidential elections.

Mr Noman also said that the opposition was “determined” that the plan should not prevent protesters from expressing themselves.

The JMP is keen to retain its credibility with tens of thousands of street protesters who want Mr Saleh to resign. Such grassroots political activism is unprecedented in Yemen, and the demonstrators are likely to be an important force in deciding the outcome of elections. Demonstrators expressed scepticism on Sunday for the Gulf plan, and reiterated calls for Mr Saleh’s immediate departure.

According to political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani, the opposition’s reservations are partly motivated by concern to retain their credibility with protesters and partly tactical.

“They [the opposition] feel that time is on their side and that by stalling they will have the opportunity to form a government with less participation by [the ruling party],” he said.

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