SANAA/ADEN Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh is refusing to hand over power and resisting a U.N.-backed plan to end months of political paralysis that has brought the impoverished state to its knees, opposition sources said on Sunday.
Saleh has withstood nine months of protests against his rule and international pressure on him to quit, three times agreeing to a Gulf-brokered power transition plan only to back out of signing it at the very last minute.
Mediators, diplomats and Saleh's deputy had said in recent weeks they were close to clinching a deal, but a senior member of the opposition told Reuters the veteran leader was stalling once again.
"Saleh wants to preserve all his powers until the election of a new president and that is rejected by the opposition and because of this the U.N. envoy's mission is going to fail," said a senior figure in the opposition who declined to be identified.
United Nations envoy Jamal Benomar, who left Yemen empty-handed in September after two weeks of shuttle diplomacy between the opposition and the ruling party, returned to Sanaa last week in a fresh push to persuade Saleh to leave office.
Under an "operational mechanism" proposed by Benomar to implement the Gulf initiative, Saleh would step down immediately, triggering the formation of a national unity government ahead of early presidential elections. A body would also be set up to restructure the armed forces.
Deputy information minister Abdo al-Janadi said in a news conference on Sunday Saleh had agreed to entrust his deputy with forming the national unity government, but made no mention of Saleh resigning.
Janadi also blamed violence that has killed at least 17 people over the past two days in Yemen's commercial capital Taiz on a "dangerous escalation" instigated by armed members of the opposition. Witnesses, residents and medical staff blamed shelling by government forces.
The U.N. Security Council last month issued a resolution urging Saleh to follow through with the Gulf initiative and deploring the bloodshed.
Neighboring oil-giant Saudi Arabia and Western powers are anxious that the upheaval in Yemen is weakening already loose central government control over whole swathes of territory, giving militants space to thrive.
Yemen's army and tribal fighters killed nine suspected al Qaeda militants overnight in a city in the southern province of Abyan, which has been sliding toward lawlessness while the wrangling over Saleh's fate goes on.
Five militants, one of them a Saudi, were killed in shelling and clashes on the northern edge of Zinjibar, which the Yemeni government said it had "liberated" from Islamist fighters in September, an official said.
The Saudi, named Naif al-Qahtani, was a senior member of Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a group linked to al Qaeda, said the official.
Four more militants were killed in another part of Zinjibar in clashes with the army and tribesmen who are fighting together to take back towns and territory seized by Islamist fighters in recent months.
Despite regular government reports of gains against militants, attacks on security checkpoints and officials have continued.
Yemen's government says Ansar al-Sharia is the Yemeni wing of al Qaeda. Some analysts say other local militant Islamist groups could be at work.
(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Heavens)