Al Qaeda said to seize Yemen town amid turmoil

An elderly anti-government protestor reacts during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa,Yemen, March 26, 2011. AP Photo

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 Qaeda 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.

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"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 in a peaceful transition of power, but has left himself room for maneuver by adding the condition that he wants to leave the country in "safe hands."

In the TV interview, he insisted he would not leave the presidency "humiliated" and that even if he stepped down as president, he would remain head of his Congress Party, leaving the door open for his continued involvement in the nation's politics.

"I will not give up on my supporters," he said.

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 Qaeda branch that calls Yemen home and funds his security forces to fight it.

Al Qaeda 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 Qaeda militants took control of the town, which sits between a mountain range where al Qaeda 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."

During the anti-government protests, security forces have either withdrawn or been forced out by residents of some cities and towns in Yemen. In most cases, residents have banded together, forming local committees to run their own affairs.

But the takeover of Jaar was a sign that militant groups could be using the uncertain situation to expand their reach beyond safe havens in the mountainous hinterlands.

Al Qaeda has seized control of towns in southern Yemen before, but in the past was vigorously confronted by Saleh's security forces. With Yemeni authorities now focused on the protests, it remains to be seen if anyone will challenge emboldened militant groups.

Saleh's weak central government exercises little control over much of the country, the Arab world's poorest. He has also grappled with an armed rebellion near the country's northern border with Saudi Arabia and a secessionist movement in the south.

The daily protests — which drew inspiration from President Hosni Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster in Egypt and began the day after — have presented Saleh with his biggest challenge.

His initial promise not to run for re-election in 2013 and a later pledge to step down by year's end have failed to ease the pressure.

The youth groups that began the uprising upped their demands this week to include a new constitution and the dissolution of parliament, local councils and Yemen's feared security agencies.

Saleh has also imposed a draconian emergency law that allows media censorship and gives police sweeping power of search and arrest.

The severity of his crackdown has also revealed divisions within Yemen's military, as senior commanders upset at the level of violence side with the protesters. That raises the prospect civil war could break out if no resolution is negotiated or if Saleh leaves office without a clear path forward for the nation.

Yemen is a deeply divided country stitched together by fragile tribal alliances. In another area of tension that threatens to split the country, the people of the once independent south hold many grievances against the north and have been agitating for more economic development in several years of escalating protests.

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