British nationals in Yemen have been urged to leave "without delay". William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, warned that their safety could no longer be guaranteed and said plans for a military evacuation had been prepared. His announcement came as opposition leaders in Yemen rejected an offer from the embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down at the end of the year, insisting he leaves office immediately.
Britain has already withdrawn most of its officials from its embassy in the capital, Sana'a, leaving only a heavily guarded skeleton staff. The ambassador and staff survived two assassination attempts last year.
The advice for Britons came as Yemen's opposition stepped up their efforts to remove President Saleh. Tensions rose the day before a planned rally which protesters have dubbed "Friday of Departure", while presidential guards loyal to Mr Saleh clashed again with army units backing opposition groups.
Yassin Noman, head of Yemen's opposition coalition, dismissed Mr Saleh's offer as "empty words" and a spokesman said: "No dialogue and no initiatives for this dead regime." With Mr Saleh's position looking increasingly precarious, the outlook for Yemen is highly uncertain. Yesterday, a leading general who has thrown his weight behind the protests dismissed speculation that he was seeking the presidency.
General Ali Mohsen, who sent troops to protect pro-democracy protesters in Sana'a yesterday, said Mr Saleh had few options and criticised the President's "stubbornness". He insisted the armed forces were committed to protecting demonstrators and confirmed he would not stand as a candidate in any future presidential election.
"Ali Mohsen has served for 55 years and has no desire for any power or position," he told Reuters. "I have no more ambition left except to spend the remainder of my life in tranquillity, peace and relaxation far from the problems of politics and the demands of the job." He added that military rule in Arab countries was outdated and that the people would decide who would govern them within the framework of a modern, civilian state.
The UK Government advised British nationals two weeks ago to leave the country but Mr Hague signalled his alarm over the rapidly deteriorating situation. "I want to make absolutely clear that all British nationals in Yemen should leave without delay."
He said: "Commercial flights to and from Yemen are still operating, although this could change. Should there be further violence, normal means of leaving, particularly through the commercial airport in Sana'a, could be blocked, and the ability to travel around Yemen will be severely restricted."
Mr Hague told MPs: "I can assure you there are detailed contingency plans for the evacuation of those British nationals who remain.
"But that would have to be, if we have to trigger that, a military-only evacuation, possibly in very difficult circumstances. So it would be difficult to be assured we would be able to bring out everybody from remote parts of Yemen."