Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to sign a Gulf plan that will finally end his 33-year rule, a UN official said, even as thousands rallied in Sanaa against the deal.
Yemeni state television said Saleh arrived in Riyadh for the signing during the morning and UN envoy Jamal Benomar said the 69-year-old president was finally to ink the deal he had so long rejected under which he will immediately hand his powers to vice president Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi.
"The signing ceremony will take place today in Riyadh," Benomar told AFP by telephone.
Yemeni state television said Saleh was in Riyadh "in response to an invitation by the Saudi leadership to attend the signing of the Gulf Initiative and its implementation mechanism ... to take the country out of its crisis."
But even as hopes rose of an end to Yemen's deadly political logjam, thousands took to the streets of the capital to protest against the deal's promise of immunity from prosecution for Saleh and his family in return for his stepping down.
"Signed or not, martyrs will not be lost," chanted the protesters, who have faced a brutal 10-month government crackdown that has left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.
"No immunity, no guarantee, Saleh must be tried with his regime."
There were also brief clashes in Sanaa during the morning between dissident troops and forces loyal to the president, residents said.
Saleh has repeatedly backed out of signing the deal brokered by his impoverished country's wealthy Gulf neighbours since the parliamentary opposition inked it back in April.
During his months of prevarication, deadly clashes between loyalist and dissident troops have riven the capital, while militants, some of them linked to al Qaeda, have taken advantage of the decline of central government control in the provinces to set up base.
The UN envoy said he was confident that Saleh was now finally ready to sign, after a UN-crafted roadmap for implementing the Gulf plan was agreed by both his loyalists and the opposition.
The opposition too expressed quiet confidence that the ceremony would go ahead.
"It seems like President Saleh finally found himself forced to sign. He will sign and I don't think there will be any surprises," Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for their Common Forum parliamentary bloc, told AFP.
Under the UN blueprint, Saleh will hand to Hadi "all powers necessary for proceeding with the Gulf initiative and its implementation mechanism and for organising early elections within a 90-day period which begins immediately after the signing," Benomar said.
The opposition will immediately put forward a candidate to head a government of national unity, which will be charged with holding talks with the youth activists who have spearheaded the 10 months of protests.
Saleh will remain honorary president for 90 days until Hadi is elected as consensus president for an interim two-year period, political sources said.
The opposition spokesman warned that the protesters were unlikely to give up their almost daily demonstrations until Saleh has finally quit office completely.
"The streets reject the Gulf initiative," Qahtan said. "People will not go back to their homes until the honorary term ends."
During the first three months of the agreement, Hadi will also form a committee that will oversee the restructuring of Yemen's deeply divided armed forces and security services.
Saleh's son Ahmed commands the Republican Guards, his nephew Yehya heads the central security services, and Tariq, another nephew, controls the presidential guard.
But two major army divisions -- one in Sanaa and one in Yemen's second-largest city Taez -- rallied to the opposition and have fought repeated battles against Saleh's loyalists leaving scores dead.