SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh will leave Yemen temporarily after Gulf states leaned on him to get out of the way of his successor in order to ease tensions complicating efforts to stabilize the country, a diplomatic source said on Sunday.
The diplomat said he expected Saleh to travel next week, probably to the United Arab Emirates, to allow recently elected President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to rule unhindered by his predecessor. Russia has said it is willing to take in Saleh.
The former long-ruling leader also agreed to relinquish his position as head of the General People's Congress party (GPC). It is sharing power with opposition groups over a two-year transitional period in line with a Gulf-brokered plan to end a year of unrest that paralyzed the impoverished state.
But a GPC official later denied Saleh planned to leave for the UAE, saying such a trip would contradict "commitments by national, regional and global parties" under the power transfer plan, according to the party's website.
Hadi has inherited a long list of challenges, including an active branch of al Qaeda-linked militants who have stepped up attacks on security forces since Hadi took office this year.
On Sunday, an al Qaeda-affiliated group freed 73 soldiers it captured during a major assault in south Yemen last month.
Residents of the southern town of Jaar, controlled by militants who call themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), saw the soldiers being let out of the school building where they were being held.
"We spent difficult days as prisoners of al Qaeda despite their good and generous treatment of us," said a freed soldier, who was heading to his home in the north of the country.
"We did not expect to return to normal life again. I am now on my way back to my family. I will try to forget what happened but I will not return to fight those who have treated me well."
In a statement, the militants said Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, had authorized their release after negotiations with tribal elders and religious scholars who visited Jaar, which the militants have renamed "the Emirate of Waqar".
Wuhayshi's involvement is further evidence of Ansar al-Sharia's links to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which CIA Director David Petraeus described last year as "the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad".
A year of political upheaval in Yemen that eventually unseated Saleh has emboldened militants in the country, especially in the south, where they have seized swathes of territory and carried out scores of attacks on security forces.
The soldiers were taken hostage by Ansar al-Sharia in one such attack on the city of Zinjibar during which more than one hundred other conscripts were killed.
Anxious over the increasing number and audacity of attacks, the United States has used drones to target militants. A local official said a U.S. drone fired on a vehicle carrying suspected al Qaeda members in the northern province of al-Jawf on Sunday.
Back in Jaar, the militants said they had released the soldiers out of respect for the mediators, who included tribal leader Sheikh Tareq al-Fadli.
"The order to free and pardon the captive soldiers, who declared their repentance for what they were doing to assist the enemies of Islamic law, was to bestow honor on the delegation and show good intentions, despite the indifference of the Sanaa government towards them (the soldiers) all this time," Ansar al-Sharia said in a statement.
The group repeated a demand that Islamist fighters be released from jail. It had previously threatened to harm the soldiers unless that condition was met.
"The militants invited local journalists, tribal mediators, human rights activists and the soldiers' relatives to their stronghold, Jaar, to attend the ceremony," said Wajdi al-Shaib, a Yemeni journalist present at the handover. "The soldiers are now with their families on the way to Aden."
Militants have sought to gain popularity by pledging to restore security, the rule of law and services which have deteriorated as a result of the ongoing political crisis.
In the statement, the militants invited Yemenis to visit their stronghold in the southern province of Abyan and told government troops they were fighting the wrong battle.
"We have announced to you over and over again that our fight is first and foremost with America and the crusaders," it said. "You are victims of American policy and you were pushed into a war on behalf of the Zionist crusader."
(Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Isabel Coles Editing by Maria Golovnina)