Helicopter rescue from UAE mission in Yemen

Embassy besieged by Saleh gunmen and GCC secretary-general and six ambassadors flown to safety as president again snubs deal.

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SANA'A // Six senior ambassadors and the secretary-general of the Gulf Co-operation Council were rescued by helicopter from the UAE Embassy in Sana'a yesterday after it was besieged by armed supporters of the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Men armed with machineguns, pistols and knives surrounded the embassy as a 4pm deadline passed for Mr Saleh to sign a GCC-brokered peace deal.

The GCC secretary-general Abdullatif bin Rashid al Zayani was inside with leading envoys including the ambassadors of Britain, the European Union and the United States.

The UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, called his Yemeni counterpart Abu Bakr al Kurbi urging him to "take swift measures to secure" the embassy and those inside.

Yemeni government helicopters arrived shortly afterwards and airlifted the diplomats to the presidential palace. No one was injured.

The drama took place as Mr Saleh once again refused to sign the peace agreement, and set new conditions for the handover of power. The president, who has been in office since 1978, insisted that opposition leaders who have already signed the deal do so again in the presidential palace.

Mr al Zayani returned to Riyadh last night for a crisis meeting of GCC foreign ministers amid expectations that the organisation's mediation will be withdrawn.

"This is not the Yemeni way of hospitality. It's a shame that President Saleh forced his followers to surround guests and diplomats," said Ahmed Bahri, a senior official with the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).

"He is putting their lives in danger by having gunmen surround them. We did everything we were told to do by Zayani. We agreed to the proposal not because we are weak but to avoid bloodshed in Yemen." Mr Bahri said he expected the GCC to come out with a strong statement to condemn Mr Saleh's actions.

A ruling party statement said Mr Saleh objected to signing the deal "behind closed doors" and wanted a public event attended by the opposition, which signed the deal on Saturday in the presence of Mr Zayani.

"Zayani thanked us for signing the proposal and putting Yemen's interests above our own," said Hasan Zaid, a JMP official.

The deal calls for Mr Saleh to step down within 30 days after signing the proposal and transfer power to his vice president. It also would give him and his inner circle immunity from prosecution.

"I will sign only if the opposition comes to sign in the palace," Mr Saleh said in a televised address yesterday.

He has backed away from signing the deal at least twice before.

"It was very difficult for us to accept signing the GCC proposal and now Saleh wants us to sign again. We will never sign it at the palace," said Hasan Zaid, the general secretary of the Haq party and one of the five opposition leaders who have signed the GCC proposal.

Saleh Shareef, an armed tribesman who was among the protesters at the embassy, said: "These ambassadors are trying to force Saleh to step down while he is Yemen's legal president. We will risk our lives for Saleh."

Abdullah Abdul Kareem, who lives near the UAE Embassy, said he told his children to move away from the windows of the house when he saw dozens of men with guns.

"I was scared to even look out of the window. They were armed and we were scared that the supporters might attack the embassy and the houses near by," he said.

Earlier Mr Zayani's vehicle was attacked by armed pro-Saleh supporters. The motorcade had rocks thrown at it while driving away.

Mr Zayani said the GCC wanted the best for Yemen and should not be treated in this way by the Yemeni people. The Chinese ambassador's convoy also came under attack by armed men, and dozens of pro-Saleh loyalists gathered in front of the police academy, where the ruling party general assembly had convened to discuss the deal.

"We are coming under pressure, to reject the initiative," said Mohammed Saad, a general assembly member.

The Organising Committee for the Yemeni Revolution announced that it will escalate protests this week to ensure the GCC proposal fails.

According to the committee, by next month Mr Saleh's forces will control only the area near the presidential palace because they will close down main roads and expand their protests.

More than 170 have been killed by pro-Saleh troops since protests began in January.

"We march peacefully with roses and flowers in our hands, and Saleh forces meet us with weapons and bullets. How can we forgive him?" said Sameer Wael, a youth protester.

"The blood of martyrs will not go in vain."

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press