Yemen: Talks deadlocked, Saleh warns of civil war

Yemen: Talks deadlocked, Saleh warns of civil war 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 Arabiya TV.

"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 handled properly.

"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 offer.

"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 the country.

"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 tribe.

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 the city.

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.