Sanaa: Fighting flared on Tuesday in a southern Yemen city seized by al Qaeda and other Islamist militants, killing at least 15 people, after Washington urged President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power peacefully.
Saleh left for Saudi Arabia at the weekend for surgery on wounds suffered in an attack on his palace in Sanaa -- an absence that could be an opportunity to ease him out of office after nearly 33 years ruling the impoverished Arab nation.
Global powers worry that chaos would make it easier for the Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda to operate and multiply risks for neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil producers.
"We are calling for a peaceful and orderly transition," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday, adding that this would be in the best interests of the Yemeni people.
Yemen`s acting leader, Vice President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, said Saleh would return within days, but the position of Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally played an influential role in Yemeni politics, could now be decisive.
Saudi officials say they will not interfere in Saleh`s decision to return to Yemen or not, but Western powers may want to revive a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered transition deal that would have secured Saleh`s resignation.
"Saleh`s departure is probably permanent," said Robert Powell, Yemen analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
"The Saudis, as well as the U.S. and European Union, are pushing hard for him to stay in Saudi Arabia, as they view the prospect of his return as a catastrophe.
"Prior to his departure, the country was slipping inexorably into a civil war. However, his removal has suddenly opened a diplomatic window to restart the seemingly failed GCC-mediated proposal. It seems Saudi Arabia and other interested parties are unwilling to allow Saleh to derail it this time."
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has used its Yemen base to stage daring but abortive attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United States, seized the southern city of Zinjibar about 10 days ago with other militants. The city is near a shipping lane where about 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
Locals and Yemeni troops have stepped up fighting to retake Zinjibar, local official said. More casualties are expected in the city, once home to about 50,000 people, but now mostly a ghost town due to the battle for control.
There was also fresh fighting in the city of Taiz, south of Sanaa. A Saudi-brokered truce was holding in the capital after two weeks of fighting between Saleh`s forces and tribesmen in which over 200 people were killed and thousands forced to flee.
Saleh, a wily political veteran, has defied global calls to accept the GCC-mediated power transition deal, backing away three times at the last minute from signing it.
Saleh, 69, was wounded on Friday when rockets struck his Sanaa palace, killing seven people and wounding senior officials and advisers in what his officials said was an assassination attempt. He is being treated in a Riyadh hospital.
The future of Yemen, riven by rivalries among tribal leaders, generals and politicians, is uncertain. Saleh`s sons and relatives remain in Yemen, commanding elite military units and security agencies.
Other contenders in a possible power struggle include the well-armed Hashed tribal federation, breakaway military leaders, Islamists, leftists and an angry public seeking relief from crippling poverty, corruption and failing public services.
Youthful protesters have been celebrating Saleh`s departure, but are wary of any attempt by the wily leader to return.
"In the near term, the biggest challenge is to set up a viable political reform process that has the general backing of the population, and allows Yemen to return to normal after months of unrest," the EIU`s Powell said.
"In the medium term, Yemen`s biggest challenge is economic -- already the poorest country in the Middle East, it is running out of oil and water, and unless it can find alternative drivers of growth an economic collapse is entirely feasible," he said.