SANA'A // Yemeni opposition leaders have welcomed a Gulf Cooperation Council exit plan for Ali Abdullah Saleh but hardliners say the initiative is too lenient on the president and his inner circle.
Nevertheless the pressure on Mr Saleh is building. The GCC says it expects an end to the crisis and the Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassem al Thani said yesterday that GCC members "hope to reach a deal with the Yemeni president to step down".
An official close to Mr Saleh said the government expects to to announce its response to the GCC initiative tomorrow.
Despite the intense diplomatic efforts, rival protests are expected today in Sana'a and other cities. Violence in Yemen has left about 125 people dead in protests that have raged for more than two months.
Under the exit plan offered to Mr Saleh he would hand power over to his deputy in return for guarantees of protection for him and his family. A diplomat in Sana'a said the proposal includes the formation of a national unity government led by the opposition.
The offer is similar to one the opposition offered at the weekend calling for Mr Saleh to make way for the vice president Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi to head a caretaker regime.
The Yemeni opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), welcomed the GCC's proposal but the initiative was criticised by members of prominent youth organisations.
"The JMP and its partners agree with what our brothers in the Gulf have proposed because Saleh's departure is the key solution to the current crisis and this is there in the GCC initiative," said Mohammed Qahtan, a spokesman for the JMP.
"The ball is in Saleh's court and any developments resulting from any delay would be his responsibility," Mr Qahtan said. He said the JMP and its allies would attend the proposed meeting on an as-yet undisclosed date in Riyadh.
Mr Qahtan said the JMP and representatives of the Houthi rebels and the Southern Movement, as well as youth organisations, will be present at the Riyadh talks.
Mr Saleh had on Wednesday welcomed GCC mediation, which he said "affirmed the necessity of a serious and fruitful dialogue to overcome the current crisis".
Members of youth organisations, which had led protests across the country, appeared unimpressed by the proposed talks. They said the president's departure should come first.
"All the youth are against talks before the corrupt regime headed by Saleh falls," said Walidd al Amari, a member of the media committee of the youth movement at a Sana'a protest.
Ahmed al Sufi, the president's press secretary, said the government did not receive any initiative from the GCC, just an invitation to talks.
"We appreciate the Gulf states' efforts to sort out the crisis in Yemen … the ball is not in the court of the president who has made several offers and showed flexibility," al Sufi said yesterday.
"The problem is presenting the president as the head of the problem. The president is keen on a smooth transfer of power," he said.
A leader in the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) led by Mr Saleh said the party would insist that several military and tribal chiefs also leave the country if the president is to step down.
He said the GPC was demanding that Major General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, who defected on March 21 and moved his troops to protect the pro-democracy protesters, must also be exiled should Mr Saleh agree to leave office.
They also demand the departure of two more military leaders who joined the protesters.
General Mohsen, a military leader once a firm ally of Mr Saleh, was one of a string of generals, diplomats and tribal leaders who turned against Mr Saleh after snipers killed 52 protesters on March 18.
As Mr Saleh's exit strategy was debated, pressures on the ground continued to mount yesterday with protests in several cities condemning government violence and demanding Mr Saleh's immediate departure.
Tens of thousands took to the streets in Taiz for the third consecutive day to denounce the violence this week that left at least 15 protesters dead and hundreds wounded. In Hodiedah, tens of thousands also demonstrated to condemn violence in the city where at least four people were killed this week.
The anti-Saleh protesters have called for massive protests today in what they called "Friday of Steadiness", while the state media said tens of thousands of pro-government activists have arrived in Sana'a to take part in a rival protest.