SANAA, Yemen – Yemen’s president, clinging to power despite weeks of protests, scrapped an offer to step down by year’s end on Sunday, as Islamic militants took control of another southern town.
Opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh – a group that started with university students and has expanded to include defecting military commanders, politicians, diplomats and even Saleh’s own tribe – had immediately rejected his offer a week ago to leave by the end of this year. Its formal withdrawal by the president indicates efforts to negotiate a transfer of power to end the crisis has failed.
In a sign of what is at stake in Yemen if security further unwinds, Islamic militants seized control of a small weapons factory, a strategic mountain and a nearby town in the southern province of Abyan, said a witness and security officials.
Saleh is a key ally of the United States in battling al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which the Obama administration considers the top terrorist threat to the U.S.
Washington is concerned that the cooperation could be imperiled if Saleh departs, and U.S. diplomats sat in on the political talks last week that failed to make progress on a possible transition of power.
“We have had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation from President Saleh and Yemeni security services. So if that government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we’ll face some additional challenges out of Yemen,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on ABC TV’s “This Week.” “There’s no question about it. It’s a real problem.”
Saleh himself warned that “Yemen is a ticking bomb” in a TV interview on Saturday night and said that without him in power, the country would descend into civil war.
Saleh has ruled over Yemen, an impoverished and deeply divided country stitched together by fragile tribal alliances, for 32 years.