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By Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to sign a deal brokered by Gulf states that would ease him from office after protracted protests against his rule that have crippled the country.
Armed clashes broke out in the capital Sanaa between government forces and gunmen loyal to opposition tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar after Saleh arrived in Riyadh, where the accord was scheduled to be inked later on Wednesday.
"The president ... arrived this morning in Riyadh on a visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, following an invitation from the Saudi leadership, to attend the signing of the Gulf initiative and its operational mechanism," state news agency Saba said.
Saleh has backed out of signing versions of the same deal at the last minute three times already this year, since protesters inspired by demonstrators in other parts of the Arab world took to the streets to demand an end to his rule.
Wednesday's developments come after U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar, with support from U.S. and European diplomats, managed to devise a compromise to implement the power transfer deal crafted by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Under the GCC plan, Saleh would shift all his powers to his deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who will form a new government with the opposition and call for an early presidential election within three months.
Saleh would keep his title until a new president is elected.
Yemeni officials said Hadi was also in Sanaa for the signing ceremony and that opposition leaders and Benomar were due to fly to Riyadh later on Wednesday.
Months of protests aimed at forcing Saleh to end his 33-year rule have rekindled conflicts with Yemen's Islamist militants and separatists, threatening anarchy in a country Washington regards as a front line against al Qaeda.
The unrest has also raised fear of civil war on the borders of Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 1 oil exporter. Washington long backed Saleh in the fight against al Qaeda, but has lately joined neighbours trying to ease him from power.
CALL FROM U.N. CHIEF
Saba said Saleh had received a telephone call from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday to thank him "for his efforts to extract Yemen out of the crisis in a peaceful way."
Benomar said on Tuesday that details of the signing of the accord were being hammered out, after an agreement in principle.
Diplomats and opposition officials said Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia after the GCC Secretary-General, Abdul Latif Al-Zayyani, refused to go to Sanaa to attend the signing ceremony. Officials say Zayyani had been embarrassed before when Saleh kept dignitaries in suspense before refusing to sign the accord.
Saleh was forced to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia for injuries suffered in an apparent assassination attempt in June after the last time he spurned the deal, which ushered in street battles that devastated parts of his capital Sanaa.
A Yemeni official said on Tuesday that the accord was facing opposition from some senior politicians in Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) strongly opposed to signing it.
A Yemeni official said that renegade general Ali Mohsen, who broke away from the Yemeni army after protests began in February, and Ahmar, who are not part of the accord, may try to obstruct the deal.
Mohsen and Ahmar's forces are locked in a stalemate against units commanded by Saleh's son and nephew, making a political resolution appear to be the only way out of deadlock.
Witnesses said Ahmar fighters and Saleh forces traded artillery fire in the Soufan and al-Hasaba neighbourhoods in Sanaa, where the tribal chief lives.
The sound of explosions could be heard from a distance. There were no reports of casualties. The area was the scene of heavy clashes earlier this year, in which scores of people from both sides were killed.
(Additional reporting by Martina Fuchs; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Peter Graff)
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