SANA, Yemen — Armed with guns, knives and swords, supporters of Yemen's leader trapped U.S., European and Arab ambassadors at a diplomatic mission in new turmoil that swept across the capital Sunday as the president refused to sign an agreement calling for him to step down in 30 days.
Security forces broke up the crowd after several hours of letting them besiege the embassy. But President Ali Abdullah Saleh's balking at the U.S.-backed deal threatened to wreck hopes for a peaceful resolution to the chaos that has consumed this key Arab nation, where hundreds of thousands have protested for three months, defying a bloody crackdown, to demand his ouster.
Saleh refused twice before to sign the agreement. But this weekend it had appeared he was finally relenting, under intense pressure from his allies, the United States and gulf Arab countries that mediated the accord. The opposition parties signed the accord on Saturday, and Saleh promised he would sign the following day.
Instead, his regime unleashed hundreds of armed loyalists into the streets of Sana in an apparently orchestrated campaign to demand he not step down. They demonstrated outside several embassies and blocked the road in front of the presidential palace.
The American ambassador, along with the ambassadors of Britain, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and other gulf Arab nations, had gathered at the United Arab Emirates Embassy, waiting to be taken to the presidential palace for the expected signing at noon.
They were besieged by a mob of hundreds of Saleh loyalists, wielding knives, swords and automatic rifles, diplomats inside the mission and witnesses said. At one point, the mob attacked a convoy bringing the chief mediator of the accord — Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, head of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Hours later, Yemeni military helicopters ferried the U.S. ambassador and al-Zayani to the presidential palace to witness the signing, witnesses said. But Saleh refused.
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