Tue, Mar 29, 2011 - Page 6 News List

Yemeni President Saleh withdraws offer to step down

AP and AFP, SANA’A and ADEN, YEMEN

Yemen’s president, clinging to power despite weeks of protests, scrapped an offer to step down by the end of the year on Sunday, as Islamic militants taking advantage of deteriorating security took control of another southern town.

Opponents of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh — a group that started with university students and has expanded to include defecting military commanders, politicians, diplomats and even Saleh’s own tribe — had immediately rejected his offer a week ago to leave by the end of the year. The formal withdrawal of the offer by the president indicates an attempt by both sides to negotiate a transfer of power to end the crisis has failed.

In a sign of what is at stake in Yemen if security further unwinds, Islamic militants seized control of a small weapons factory, a strategic mountain and a nearby town in the southern province of Abyan on Sunday, a witness and security officials said.

However, a blast at the ammunition factory killed at least 40 people and wounded 90 others yesterday, a local official said.

On Saturday, militants believed to belong to Yemen’s active al--Qaeda offshoot swept into another small town in the area called Jaar. In both cases, the militants moved in with no resistance because police had withdrawn weeks earlier — as they did in several other parts of the country — in the face of challenges by anti-government protesters.

Saleh is a key ally of the US in battling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the administration of US President Barack Obama considers the top terrorist threat to the US.

Washington is concerned that the cooperation could be imperiled if Saleh departs, and US diplomats sat in on the political talks last week that failed to make progress on a possible transition of power.

“We have had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation from President Saleh and Yemeni security services. So if that government collapses, or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we’ll face some additional challenges out of Yemen,” US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on ABC TV’s This Week. “There’s no question about it. It’s a real problem.”

Saleh himself warned that “Yemen is a ticking bomb” in a TV interview on Saturday night and said that without him in power, the country would descend into civil war.

The protesters behind weeks of demonstrations are demanding Saleh step down immediately and they want a ban on future government positions for him and his family. For 32 years he has ruled over Yemen, an impoverished and deeply divided country stitched together by fragile tribal alliances.

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world. It is rapidly running out of water resources and oil, and it is buffeted by conflicts that include an on-and-off rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.

The protesters complain of corruption, and a lack of jobs and political freedom. Their ranks swelled as many of the president’s allies abandoned him over an escalating crackdown that has killed 92 protesters, according to the Shiqayiq Forum for Human Rights.

Increasingly isolated, Saleh convened a meeting of hundreds of members of his Congress Party’s leadership committee on Sunday.

A party statement released afterwards said the meeting affirmed that “President Ali Abdullah Saleh should remain in his position until he finishes his constitutional term” in 2013.

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