Militant attacks raise fear of Yemeni power vacuum

Militants clashed with the Yemeni army in a southern town yesterday, fuelling Western fears that the country could descend into chaos which would benefit al-Qa'ida if President Ali Abdullah Saleh is forced out.

The army tried to dislodge a coalition of Islamists from Jaar in Abyan province after they seized buildings on Saturday. One soldier was killed yesterday and jets flew over the town later, but it was not clear if Sana'a had reasserted government control.

Abyan is seen as a stronghold of al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni wing of the network, which Western countries and neighbouring Saudi Arabia fear could take advantage of any power vacuum if Mr Saleh resigned immediately.

The president, under pressure from tens of thousands of Yemenis protesting to demand his departure after 32 years in power, convened a meeting of his ruling General People's Congress party yesterday. A party source said its central committee, which contains thousands of members, had asked Mr Saleh to stay in power until 2013, when his presidential term expires. One of the president's first concessions when protests began in February was to say he would not seek another period in office beyond that date.

In an interview aired by Al Arabiya television at the weekend, Mr Saleh said he was prepared for a dignified departure at any stage but that opposition parties were hijacking the protests to demand he quit without organising a democratic handover.

"I could leave power ... even in a few hours, on condition of maintaining respect and prestige," the president said. "I have to take the country to safe shores ... I'm holding on to power in order to hand it over peaceably."

Washington and Saudi Arabia have backed Mr Saleh as their man to stop al-Qa'ida from expanding its foothold in a country many political analysts say is close to collapse.