By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 26 (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council on Wednesday authorized sanctions against anyone in Yemen who obstructs the country's political transition or commits human rights violations but stopped short of blacklisting any specific individuals.
The British-drafted resolution was adopted unanimously. It leaves the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans on specific individuals to a newly created U.N. sanctions committee for Yemen, which will be made up of all 15 council members.
Western diplomats say former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and former Vice President Ali Salim Al-Beidh are top candidates for the U.N. blacklist.
"The council has made clear that we remain firmly committed to supporting Yemen as it implements subsequent steps in the transition process, including constitutional reform and national elections," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told the council.
"The council has taken the forward-leaning step of setting up a committee that is prepared to sanction individuals for impeding the ongoing transition in Yemen," she said, adding that the council could now "respond in a timely manner to those who seek to derail progress."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant also welcomed the resolution and told the council that it contained several clear messages, including that the world was determined to support the Yemeni people and their government as they strive to stabilize the country.
But it also contains clear warnings, he said.
"Those wishing to derail the political transition will face swift and firm consequences through the new sanctions committee," Lyall Grant said. "The resolution is clear, and I quote, 'the transition process requires turning the page from the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh'."
Yemen, a U.S. ally with a population of 25 million and one of the poorest Arab countries, is trying to end nearly three years of political unrest which began with mass protests against Saleh, who was president 33 years before stepping down in 2012.
"I am pleased that today the council took decisive action," the United Nations' special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, told reporters after the vote, adding that there was a "systematic pattern of obstruction" and "serious security challenges" in the country.
The Security Council has previously expressed concern over reports of interference by Saleh and Al-Beidh. In November, Benomar accused members of Saleh's circle of obstructing reconciliation talks In Yemen aimed at completing a power transfer deal that eased Saleh out of office.
Yemen's U.N. Ambassador Jamal Abdullah Al-Sallal also welcomed the adoption of the resolution and the creation of the sanctions regime. "We do not wish to return to square one, to confront violence and a slide toward civil war," he said.
The former British colony is home to one of the deadliest branches of al Qaeda and shares a long border with the world's top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.
Instability in Yemen is an international concern. Saleh's continuing sway in the country worries its Gulf neighbors and Western nations fearful that the transition could descend into chaos.
The 1990 union between the tribal North Yemen and the Marxist South soon went sour and a civil war broke out four years later in which then-President Saleh crushed southern secessionists and maintained the union.
Yemen continues to confront demands by southern separatists for independence, and is trying to quell rebels from the Shi'ite Muslim Houthi movement, which has been on an offensive to extend its control over the north. (Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Mohammad Zargham)
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