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Yemen presidential election set for February 21

A woman holding a poster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh takes part in a rally to show support for Saleh during Friday prayers in Sa
A woman holding a poster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh takes part in a rally to show support for Saleh during Friday prayers in Sa

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's vice president called presidential elections for February 21 on Saturday under a deal aimed at ending months of protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh that have brought the country to the edge of civil war.

If the agreement goes according to plan, Saleh will become the fourth Arab ruler brought down by mass demonstrations that have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East.

Saleh returned home on Saturday after signing the deal with the opposition in Riyadh on Wednesday under which he transferred his powers to Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi after 33 years in office and 10 months of protests.

In a decree run on the Saba state news agency on Saturday, Hadi said Yemenis "are called on to vote in early elections for a new president of the republic starting at 8 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, February 21, 2012."

"The early presidential election will take place under the management of the Supreme Commission For Elections and Referendum," the decree added.

Yemen has become engulfed under Saleh by political strife that has allowed free rein to northern rebels, southern secessionists and al-Qaeda.

Under the agreement, signed with the Yemeni opposition at a ceremony hosted by Saudi King Abdullah, Saleh will receive immunity from prosecution and keep his title until a successor is elected. Hadi was charged with calling the election within three months and forming a new government with the opposition.

Hundreds of people have been killed during months of protests seeking Saleh's overthrow. The political deadlock has reignited conflicts with separatists and militants, raising fears that al Qaeda's Yemen wing could take a foothold on the borders of Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.

Details of the power transfer deal - drawn up by Yemen's richer neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council earlier this year, and thwarted by Saleh on three separate occasions - were hammered out by U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar, with support from U.S. and European diplomats.

The deal has failed to appease protesters at Sanaa's Change Square, with many of them angry that it has guaranteed Saleh and his family immunity.

On Friday, opposition parties agreed to nominate the head of an alliance that led the protests, Mohammed Basindwa, to form a new government. Basindwa is a former foreign minister who leads the opposition National Council formed after the protests broke out in February.

SALAFI SITES SHELLED

Earlier on Saturday, 10 people were killed in north Yemen when Shi'ite Muslim rebels shelled positions held by Sunni Islamist Salafi fighters after the collapse of a week-old ceasefire, a Salafi spokesman said.

The conflict between the Shi'ite Houthi rebels and the Sunni Salafis is just one of several plaguing Yemen. In recent weeks, the Houthis have skirmished with Salafist fighters, leading local tribesmen to broker a truce between them a week ago.

"The Houthis broke the ceasefire and shelled the town of Damaj," said the Salafi spokesman, who identified himself as Abu Ismail, adding that 15 people were injured.

Members of the Zaidi sect of Shi'ite Islam, the Houthi rebels led an uprising based in the northern Saada province that Saleh's forces have struggled to crush, with Saudi Arabia intervening militarily in 2009 before a ceasefire took hold last year.

The Houthis, who effectively control Saada, are deeply wary of Saudi Arabia's promotion of puritanical Sunni Salafi creeds that regard Shi'ites as heretics.

Saleh Habra, a Houthi leader, has accused the Yemeni government of supplying arms to the Salafis, who he said were trying to build a military camp near the Saudi border. "We are trying to cut off their arms supplies," Habra told Reuters last week.

Separately, Yemeni aircraft bombed sites used by anti-government tribal militants in northern Sanaa, killing seven people, tribal sources said on Saturday.

Those sources said tribal fighters were seeking to surround a camp used by the Republican Guard, a unit led by Saleh's son.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari and Sami Aboudi; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush; Editing by David Stamp)

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