Dubai: Yemen's embattled President Ali
Abdullah Saleh has said he was willing to transfer power "to
the people" but feared a civil war in the absence of political
dialogue, as a key ally US voiced concern that his fall would
pose "a real problem" for counter-terrorism efforts.
Saleh's regime has been rocked by massive protests
since January prompting several top military officials and
tribal leaders to defect in open support of the protesters.
Cornered by relentless street protests, Saleh said he
would not mind stepping down if allowed a dignified departure,
but warned that Yemen was a "time-bomb" and could slide into
civil war if transfer of power was done in a hurry.
As the President sought to dispel the notion that he
was trying to hold on to power, reports from the country's
south said that Islamic militants there had seized control of
a weapons factory and a town.
Reports said that suspected al-Qaeda militants had
killed seven Yemeni soldiers in attacks on an army convoy and
a government building today near Marib, east of the capital.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, voiced
concern over the eventual possibility of Saleh's departure,
and its impact on the campaign against al Qaeda.
"I think it is a real concern because the most active
and at this point perhaps the most aggressive branch of
al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, operates out of
Yemen," Gates said.
"So if that government collapses, or is replaced by
one who is dramatically more weak, then I think we'd face some
additional challenges out of Yemen, there's no question about
it. It's a real problem," he said.
A day after he put a brave face to insist that his
regime was unshaken by the course of events of the past two
months, Saleh said in an interview to Al Arabiya television
that he was prepared to leave in "a few hours" but he had the
responsibility to take the country to "safe shores".
"I could leave power ... even in a few hours, on
condition of maintaining dignity and prestige," Saleh told Al
"I will transfer power to the people, who are the
source and owner of power," he said.
Saleh asked his opponents to learn from the example of
Somalia, warning that Yemen was a "time bomb" and could slide
into a civil war like situation if the current crisis was not
"If we do not act, along with good-willed and friendly
countries, to close the rift and start a political dialogue,
there will be a devastating civil war that will disturb the
whole region," he said.
Though talks have been on to hammer out a deal for a
peaceful transition of power, the opposition has said they
believe the president is "manoeuvring".
The opposition says there is still a large gap between
opposition demands and what the government is prepared to
"We still have a very big gap," Yassin Noman, the
rotating head of Yemen's opposition coalition was quoted as
saying by the channel.
Al Arabiya said issues like Saleh's demand for a
guarantee that he and his family would not be pursued legally
could be holding out a deal.
The Washington Post said that according to US spy
agencies, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could be close to
launching an attack as the group may be seeking to capitalise
on unrest roiling the Arab country.
In power for over 30 years, Saleh is a key US ally in
the region. An impoverished and tribally-divided country,
Yemen has become a base for al-Qaeda and the government has
launched a major operation against the network in the south of
"I have to take the country to safe shores... I'm
holding on to power in order to hand it over peaceably... I'm
not looking for a home in Jeddah or Paris," Saleh said.
However, he added that he would remain in charge of
the ruling party even if stood down.
The President had earlier offered to step down by the
end of the year, instead of in 2013 when the term of his
government ends, but the protesters had rejected his offer
demanding his immediate ouster.
Saleh, meanwhile, said meetings had taken place over
the past two days to discuss ways to end the crisis and that
the US ambassador had also attended.
Attacking the opposition, who he claimed were a
minority in the country, he said: "They can organise a march
of 20,000 people? I can get two or three million. How can a
minority twist the arm of the majority?"
A violent crackdown has been witnessed in the country
ever since the unrest broke out in January following similar
movements in Tunisia and Egypt.
Plainclothes snipers loyal to the president fired into
an anti-government crowd, killing 52 people on March 17,
following which the regime was hit by a series of defections,
including by top military commanders, ambassadors, lawmakers,
provincial governors and tribal leaders, some from his own
Violence was reported in the country's south, with
residents of the town of Jaar reporting that they were being
shelled by the military, Al Jazeera said.
It said the residents had earlier taken control of an
ammunition factory after government forces pulled back from
Saleh is set to hold "crisis talks" with his own party
to update senior leaders on the talks with the opposition.
At a meeting with tribal leaders yesterday, he vowed
to hold firm in his resolve to serve out his current term.
His party, the General People's Congress, termed the
opposition's demand that Saleh step down "unacceptable and
illogical" in a statement.
First Published: Sunday, March 27, 2011, 23:48