Sanaa: Dozens of Yemeni troops went missing after a battle with al Qaeda-linked militants at a sports stadium in the country`s increasingly lawless south, a military official said Saturday, describing a new setback for a weakened regime already facing an array of opponents.
Meanwhile, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been treated in a Saudi hospital since an attack on his palace a month ago, remains bedridden and has difficulty breathing and talking, Yemeni officials said, revealing new details about the extent of his injuries. His condition cast doubt on repeated claims by his aides that his return to Yemen is imminent.
Saudi Arabia has been pressing Saleh to step down within 30 days and hand power to his vice president, in exchange for immunity from prosecution. However, despite his ill health, Saleh has refused to sign the deal.
A popular uprising against Saleh erupted in February, and the revolt gained momentum after some of the president`s close aides, military commanders and Cabinet ministers joined the protesters.
Islamic militants in the south have made advances, carrying out daring attacks in an apparent attempt to exploit the power vacuum and turmoil. Saleh`s troops seem largely focused on securing his hold on power in Sanaa, the capital.
However, some have accused Saleh and his allies of encouraging attacks by the militants in order to create chaos and make Yemenis long for the relative stability of his regime.
In a statement Saturday, former military commanders who now side with the anti-government groups said Saleh`s regime is responsible for the rising power of the militants. "After seeing that all their careless tactics have failed to squash the peaceful revolt, they are now resorting to the terrorism card which they only used internationally before," said the group, which includes a close former Saleh aide, Gen. Ali Mohsen.
Criticism also came from regime loyalists, indicating widening cracks.
Col. Mohammed al-Sawmali, whose forces are battling militants in the southern city of Zinjibar, blasted the defense ministry for not providing enough support for his unit.
"They are afraid of the militants of Ansar al-Sharia and of al Qaeda," he said. "For a while, we have been demanding and asking for deployment and supplies to the military district in the south from the ministry of defense and from the southern command center. But nobody is listening to us."
Another southern official, Abdel-Majed al-Salahi, a leading member in Saleh`s party, said some in the party are plotting to unleash militants in southern cities and "terrorize and blackmail the world with al Qaeda."
Government troops and warplanes have so far targeted only two southern cities, Zinjibar and Jaar, in Abyan province.
Some 50 government soldiers have been missing in Zinjibar since Thursday, following fierce clashes with the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia at a major stadium there, said a military official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
In those clashes, 15 soldiers and eight Islamic militants were killed, the official said. The stadium was strategically located near the military base of the troops in the area.
The stadium is now in the hands of the militants, and many people living nearby have fled the area, said Ahmed Ghareb, a 31-year old city resident.
"We are living in fear," he said, adding that he has sent his family to safety in a neighboring town. "These groups are now in control of all government institutions and buildings, which they have turned into military bases for themselves," Ghareb said. The militants have also broken into some homes in search of government supporters, he said.
In an apparent attempt to deflect the growing criticism, defense minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed met Saturday with local officials in the southern city of Aden, just 70 kilometers (44 miles) from Zinjibar.
The minister said troops will make a greater effort to battle militants.
But security and military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said Yemen`s elite anti-terrorism forces, lead by Saleh`s son, have not been deployed in the area. Saleh supporters have said the forces need to remain in the capital to protect it from attack.
The United States, in favor of a peaceful power transfer, fears that al-Qaeda`s branch in Yemen could further exploit Yemen`s turmoil. al Qaeda-linked groups have already used Yemen as a base for plotting two attempted anti-US attacks.
In violence elsewhere Saturday, tribesmen attacked newly established positions of government troops near Taiz, the country`s second largest city, setting off clashes that killed four soldiers and a civilian, a security official said. Taiz is a hotbed of anti-government protests. In the fighting, troops fired shells that destroyed six homes, witnesses said.
In the central province of Marib, gunmen blew up an unused oil pipeline, the latest in a series of attacks on the same target in recent weeks, officials said Saturday. The attack occurred Thursday. Yemeni authorities stopped producing oil in May because of repeated attacks and labor unrest.
Yemen`s president, meanwhile, continues to be treated in Saudi Arabia for serious burns and other wounds he suffered in a June 3 attack on his palace in the capital of Sanaa.
Yemeni officials said Saturday that after undergoing two surgeries, Saleh remains bedridden and has trouble breathing and talking. Only relatives and his top adviser are allowed to visit him, one official said.
Earlier this week, a Yemeni TV network sent a crew to the Saudi capital to record an audio message from Saleh to the Yemeni people, but authorities prevented them from entering the hospital, a Yemeni official in Riyadh said.
"They were only allowed to film the hospital from outside," the official said, citing an example of the Saudi restrictions on Saleh`s visitors.
Over the past week, Yemeni ruling party officials have suggested Saleh may deliver an audio message on state TV to assure his people. However, a week passed without word from Saleh.
"If he (Saleh) delivered a speech through an audio message, people would not believe it is him because they will not recognize his voice," said another official, adding that Saleh`s voice box was harmed.
All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
The president has not been seen in public since the attack. On June 5, hours before he flew to Saudi Arabia, he aired a brief audio message, blaming an "armed gang of outlaws" for the attack on his palace.