By Amena Bakr and Mohammed Ghobari
RIYADH/SANAA | Sun Jul 3, 2011
RIYADH/SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen's president, in hospital in Riyadh, will not cede power until he returns to oversee a transition, a Yemeni cabinet official said Sunday, extending a period of political limbo.
The fractious Arabian Peninsula state has been paralyzed by six-months of mass protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule. After surviving an assassination attempt last month, Saleh went to Saudi Arabia for treatment.
As Saleh clings to power and the political impasse drags on, the southern Abyan province has descended into violence with militants suspected of ties to al Qaeda seizing two cities.
The United States and neighboring Saudi Arabia fear a power vacuum in the impoverished country that sits on the border of the world's top oil exporter and which hosts an al Qaeda branch that has launched failed attacks on U.S. and Saudi targets.
They have been pushing for an immediate power transfer.
The cabinet official visiting the president Sunday told Reuters Saleh planned to support a Gulf Arab transition plan that has already collapsed three times when the president backed out of signing at the last minute.
"Saleh plans to support the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal and he asked the foreign minister to do everything to make the plan succeed," said the official, who asked not to be further identified. "But in order for the power to be transitioned, the president has to be in Yemen."
He also said Saleh expected to manage the transition himself: "To have a proper election you would need six to eight months and during that period Saleh will still be president."
Analysts have said the suspected bomb planted in Saleh's mosque last month would prevent the 69-year-old leader from resuming power even though it did not kill him.
Opposition groups and the hundreds of thousands protesting across Yemen want an immediate change in government, which Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has run in Saleh's absence.
"Saleh's return has become impossible and if his health improved, which I doubt, we say to him, stay where you are and take the rest of your family with you," said Samia al-Aghbari, a prominent activist in Taiz, south of the capital, where tens of thousands camp out daily.
"They want to burn this country to the ground."
Despite the defection of several military leaders and hundreds of troops, Saleh's son remains in control of the powerful Republican Guard that protesters in Taiz say tried to attack their camp Saturday night. Armed tribesmen defending the protesters shot dead four soldiers and wounded 12 others.
SOUTHERN VIOLENCE RISES
With political talks at a standstill, Yemen is planning to step up military action, hoping to retake areas lost to Islamist militants and armed tribesmen amid rising unrest in the Arab world's poorest country.
The Defense Ministry has placed a security belt around the southern port city of Aden, which sits near the entry to a shipping lane that channels some 3 million barrels of oil daily.
Aden residents, seeing thousands of refugees pouring in over recent weeks, worry violence could spread from neighboring Abyan, where clashes are erupting daily. Abyan residents complain of severe fuel, food and water shortages.
A military base just outside the militant-controlled provincial capital of Zinjibar said it has been under siege for more than a month. It appealed Sunday for help from the state, which has yet to send reinforcements.
"We have been blockaded for over a month and have not received human reinforcements, equipment, or even a drop of water in over two weeks," military officer at the embattled base, Khaled Noamani, told Reuters by telephone.
He said some 15 militants and 10 soldiers were killed and dozens injured Sunday during fierce clashes outside the base.
In Sanaa, acting president Hadi said Yemen would repair pipelines in the oil-producing Maarib province. Tribesmen blew up an empty line last week, after shutting down the main pipeline in an attack in March.
The Defense Ministry Saturday said it would send troops to chase down the "terrorist elements" behind the attacks, which halted Yemen's 110,000 barrel-per-day output.
Tribesmen have blockaded the area, costing the government millions of dollars a day in lost exports and sparking a severe fuel crisis, hours-long power outages, and rocketing prices in a country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
The shortages have begun to spark violence, with clashes breaking out over fuel at petrol stations over the weekend.