Talks on fate of Yemen's embattled president snag

By Ahmed Al-haj

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 26 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

A female anti-government protestor holds her daughter, her face painted with the colours of the national flag, during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa,Yemen, Saturday, March 26, 2011. The White House urged governments in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to cease attacks on protesters Friday, while saying the violence against protesters in those countries have not risen to the same level as in Libya, where U.S. forces are engaged in military action to stop violence perpetrated by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. Arabic reads on the girl's face, " Leave".

Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press

SANAA, Yemen — Allies of Yemen's president and his political opponents failed to make progress Saturday in talks on a possible exit for the man who has led the nation through 32 years of growing poverty and conflict and whose rule is now deeply imperiled by a popular uprising.

As the political turmoil deepened, there were signs that Islamic militants in the remote reaches of the country were seeking to make gains on the situation. Residents and witnesses in the small town of Jaar in the south said suspected al-Qaida militants moved down from an expanse of mountains on Saturday to seize control there a few weeks after police fled, setting up checkpoints and occupying vacant government buildings.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh argued in a TV interview that without him, the country would be at grave risk of breaking apart.

"Yemen is a ticking bomb and if the political system collapses and there's no constructive dialogue there will be a long civil war that will be difficult to end," he told the Al-Arabiya network.

Officials on both sides of Saturday's talks, which were attended by the U.S. ambassador, said the parties refused to give any ground. After six weeks of unprecedented protests in Yemen, Saleh says he is willing to step aside, but has left himself room for maneuver by adding the condition that he wants to leave the country in "safe hands."

The protesters — whose ranks have been bolstered by defecting military commanders, lawmakers, Cabinet ministers, diplomats and even Saleh's own tribe — are insisting he go immediately. The demands and defections have only grown since government security forces — including snipers on rooftops — shot dead more than 40 demonstrators in the capital of Sanaa a week ago.

In Saturday's talks, Saleh's vice president and political adviser met with the U.S. ambassador and tribal and military leaders who joined the opposition, said presidential spokesman Ahmed al-Sufi. Among the military leaders was Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who has deployed his tanks in downtown Sanaa to protect protesters. Al-Ahmar is the most powerful man to emerge as a likely successor to Saleh, and he began the efforts to negotiate with the president on Thursday.

Al-Sufi said ruling party officials were prepared to discuss a possible transition of power, but that the opposition demanded Saleh's immediate resignation and a ban on future government positions for him and his family.

"These demands are impossible to accept," al-Sufi told The Associated Press. "What is clear is that the president wants an honorable transfer of power according to the constitution and through elections."

Opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri confirmed the meeting's details and accused Saleh of stalling.

The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa declined to comment publicly when asked about Saturday's meeting.

The United States holds a large stake in Yemen's future. It considers Saleh a key ally against an active al-Qaida branch that calls Yemen home and funds his security forces to fight it.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's 300 or so fighters have waged a relentless campaign of attacks on Saleh's security forces. They have also staged nearly successful attacks on targets beyond Yemen's borders, including putting bombs hidden in computer printer cartridges on cargo flights last fall and getting a would-be suicide bomber on a Detroit-bound commercial flight in December 2009.

On Saturday, residents of Jaar said men believed to be al-Qaida militants took control of the town, which sits between a mountain range where al-Qaida is active and the important port city of Aden, 20 miles (35 kilometers) to the southwest.

"They made checkpoints at the entrance, and they've spread out in the city," said resident Walid Mohammed by telephone. "They've taken control of government buildings."

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