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SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's opposition rejected on Monday a Gulf Arab initiative for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, because it appeared to offer him immunity from prosecution, while Saleh himself welcomed the plan.
Gulf Arab foreign ministers meeting in Riyadh late on Sunday said publicly for the first time that the framework of their mediation effort involved Saleh standing down, though it did not say when that would occur.
The ministers called for a meeting of parties to the Yemeni conflict in Saudi Arabia but set no date.
"Who would be a fool to offer guarantees to a regime that kills peaceful protesters? Our principal demand is that Saleh leaves first," opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabry said.
Diplomatic sources say Saleh has dragged his heels for weeks over U.S. attempts to get him to agree to step down and end protests crippling the country since early February, manoeuvring to win guarantees that he and his sons do not face prosecution.
With more than 100 protesters killed in clashes with security forces, activists have said they want to see legal action against Saleh and his sons, who occupy key security and political posts.
Tens of thousands filled the streets of Sanaa, Taiz, Hudaida, Ibb and the southeastern province of Hadramaut on Monday to protest against the Gulf plan, witnesses said.
General Ali Mohsen, a kinsman of Saleh whose units are protecting protesters in Sanaa, said on Monday he welcomed the details of the GCC plan announced in Riyadh.
"He hopes all parties will accept this initiative and not miss this opportunity," a statement from his office said.
Shortly after the opposition rejected the Gulf initiative, Saleh's office issued a statement saying he accepted it.
"The presidency welcomes the efforts of our brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council to solve the current crisis in Yemen," the statement said from his office said.
"He (Saleh) has no reservations about transferring power peacefully within the framework of the constitution," it added, in language Saleh has used before to argue he should oversee a transition involving new elections.
Long regarded by the West as a vital ally against al Qaeda militants, Saleh has warned of civil war and the break-up of Yemen if he is forced to leave power before organising parliamentary and presidential polls over the next year.
He had sought Saudi mediation for some weeks, but Gulf diplomatic sources said Riyadh was prompted in the end by concern over the deteriorating security in its southern neighbour after Saleh failed to act on the backroom deal struck with U.S. officials on a quick exit.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, is the key financier of the Yemeni government as well as many Yemeni tribes on its border.
Countries of the region became convinced that Saleh, a shrewd political operator in power since 1978, is an obstacle to stability in a country that overlooks a shipping lane where over 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
The Gulf statement on Sunday talked of "the formation of a national unity government under the leadership of the opposition which has the right to form committees ... to draw up a constitution and hold elections."
It said Saleh should hand his authorities over to his vice president and that all parties should "stop all forms of revenge .. and (legal) pursuance, through guarantees offered" -- wording that appeared to offer Saleh assurances of no prosecution for him or his family once he leaves office.
Saleh's deputy, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has said he is not interested, which could open the way to the perennial survivor nominating an interim successor of his own choice.
Even before the protests inspired by the toppling of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi'ite Muslim insurgency in the north -- violence that has given the Arabian Peninsula branch of al Qaeda more room to operate.
In continued unrest, 11 suspected al Qaeda members, including two foreigners, were killed in a clash with army troops on Monday in the southern province of Abyan, seen as a hotbed of al Qaeda activity, a Defence Ministry website said. Two soldiers were also killed and five were wounded.
Earlier, two soldiers and a militant were killed in another clash in Abyan.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf and Erika Solomon; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Nick Macfie and Paul Taylor