SANAA // Loyalists of Yemen's outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, shot dead at least five people in the capital yesterday as tens of thousands took to the streets in protest at a peace deal that shields him from prosecution in return for giving up his 33-year rule.
Mr Saleh signed a deal on Wednesday to surrender power to his deputy in return for immunity for himself and his inner circle in a bid to end a bloody uprising that has brought one of the Arab world's poorest countries to the brink of civil war. More than 1,000 people have been killed.
Yesterday's violence has renewed doubts over the strength of the peace plan, already under a cloud after Mr Saleh backed out of signing at the last minute three times in recent months.
"Saleh thugs opened fire on our peaceful protest from rooftops, and from inside shops," said Mohammed Al Alimi, one of the thousands, furious at the immunity clause, marching through the streets of Sanaa.
Mohammed Al Qubati, a coordinator of Sanaa's protest tent camp known as Change Square, said five people were shot dead and 40 wounded.
Immediately after Mr Saleh and the opposition signed the transfer of power deal at a ceremony in Riyadh, some activists and ordinary Yemenis said they were relieved and hoped finally for an immediate end to the bloodshed.
But the immunity guarantee angered many.
Mr Saleh denounced yesterday's shootings and ordered an investigation and the punishment of those responsible, the defence ministry said in a statement.
The Yemen agreement, drafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and backed by the UN, still faces tough hurdles in a country torn by factional, tribal and regional as well as political rivalries.
Yemen's Shiite Houthi rebels yesterday rejected the agreement, vowing to continue the protests despite a truce with a regime that ended fighting in their northern homeland two years ago.
"We consider any agreement with the despotic regime a betrayal to the blood of the martyrs," rebel leader Abdulmalik Al Houthi said in a statement.
"The political settlement that was done with the criminal regime brings things back to square one as it gives it immunity from prosecution for its horrible crimes that it committed against the people," the Houthi rebel leaders said.
Tens of thousands of protesters also took to the streets of the southern city of Taiz, a centre of anti-government activism, and other cities around the country, angry at the deal and the opposition groups which signed on.
Protest leaders have called for more demonstrations today.
Under the GCC plan, Mr Saleh will relinquish his powers within 30 days to his deputy, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, a career military officer until he moved into politics.
Mr Hadi must form a unity government with the opposition and hold a presidential election within 90 days, a daunting logistical challenge in an impoverished country weakened by months of fighting, lawlessness and economic chaos.
Mr Saleh remains honorary president for three months from signing the deal.
Yassin Saeed Noman, the rotating chairman of the opposition coalition known as the Joint Meeting Parties, said talks were due to start either late last night or today among opposition groups to choose their candidates for the interim cabinet.
Mr Hadi, from Southern Yemen, will be the only presidential candidate under an agreement between the ruling party and the opposition, Mr Noman said.
Mr Hadi will run Yemen during a two-year transition in which the army will be restructured, the constitution reviewed and reconciliation talks with various groups to address the country's problems.
Amed Al Zurkah, an independent analyst and freelance writer, said the presidential vote was a formality.
"Hadi is the only candidate," he said.
But he said yesterday's violence underscored the obstacles to a peaceful political transition.
"This attack demonstrates that it is very crucial to start removing the rival army troops as well as the armed people off the streets in Sanaa and other cities," Mr Zurkah said. "Their presence makes the situation liable to explode at any moment."
Critical to the success of a peaceful transition will be the extent to which Yemen's neighbours and the international community maintain pressure on Mr Saleh to honour his promise, and their support for Mr Hadi, the analyst said.
"The international community succeeded in getting the deal signed and should be very harsh with any party that would abuse it," Mr Zurkah said.
"They have the card of immunity and sanctions - mainly on Saleh whose influence on the government will remain through his party."
It was vital the youth-led protest movement remained on the streets to prevent the transition being hijacked by the old guards of the Saleh government and the opposition, he said.
"It is the youth and not the opposition which forced Saleh out. Therefore, the real battle for genuine change and to achieve the objectives of the revolt has just started," he said.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse