MOSCOW, Mar 22, 2011 (AFP) - US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday voiced concern over unrest in Yemen, saying it could divert attention from the country's fight against Al-Qaeda militants.
But the Pentagon chief declined to discuss the political fate of Yemen's embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was facing the threat of a military coup.
Asked if the United States still supported Saleh, Gates said he would not comment on "internal affairs in Yemen".
"We are obviously concerned about instability in Yemen," Gates told reporters travelling with him during a visit to Moscow, where he held talks with Russian leaders.
"We consider Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of Al-Qaeda right now," he said.
"Instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation," he said.
Washington has viewed Saleh as a crucial ally in efforts to combat Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, dramatically increasing military assistance in recent years while American special forces work with Yemeni troops.
In the face of mass protests since January, Saleh offered to resign by January but the opposition insisted on Tuesday he step down immediately.
With tanks deployed outside key installations in the capital, Saleh warned earlier that a coup attempt in Yemen could spark civil war.
Before unrest shook the region, US officials reportedly were looking at stepping up drone bombing raids against Al-Qaeda figures in Yemen, a tactic widely used against militants in Pakistan.