* Says power vacuum can be filled by extremists * Rules out protests in Ethiopia
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, March 12 (Reuters) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Saturday escalating unrest in Yemen could bolster al Qaeda and its allied Somali insurgents al Shaabab, but ruled out any similar unrest in his country.
A wave of protests, inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, has weakened President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year grip on Yemen, but he has refused calls for his resignation and the police response to the crisis has become increasingly tough.
Three people died and hundreds were injured on Saturday in some of the fiercest clashes between police and anti-government protesters since popular unrest started to batter faction-riven Yemen in January. [ID:nLDE72B04J]
"If the demonstrations in Yemen lead to some sort of breakdown in law and order, this might give al Qaeda -- which is based there - a good opportunity to expand...It has (also) become a key base of support for al Shabaab," Meles told a news conference.
Experts see a possible resurgence of al Qaeda in Yemen, which some Somali government officials say is sending arms to support the Islamist al Shabaab insurgents in Somalia.
Meles sent troops to Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist movement. His army has maintained a heavy presence at its border since withdrawing in 2009.
"If the current demonstrations are not managed well, (they) could lead to an unwelcome political vacuum and possible state failure in Yemen. That would be a major security risk for all of us in the Horn of Africa."
The Unites States, which considers Yemen's president a key ally, has also said it was dismayed by the growing fatalities and called for calm, warning that Yemen could suffer the same fate as Libya unless there was dialogue.
ETHIOPIA UPRISING `IMPOSSIBLE'
Apart from Djibouti, much of the uprising that has spread across north Africa and the Middle East is yet to reach sub-Saharan Africa, despite the existence of similar economic and political circumstances.
Some U.S.-based Ethiopian opposition supporters have called for an Arab-style "day of rage" against Meles, whom they accuse of authoritarian rule.
Meles, however, dismissed any chance of an uprising in his country.
"We are not worried that there will be a north Africa-type revolution in Ethiopia, it's simply not possible. The circumstances for it do not exist," he said.
Meles said popular support for his party hinged on economic issues, and the success of an ambitious economic plan his administration unveiled last year, which targets up to 15 percent in four years time.