SANAA (Reuters) - A Yemeni committee tasked with demilitarizing the capital has given 48 hours to armed opponents and backers of outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh to begin withdrawing after months of street fighting, state news agency Saba said on Wednesday.
The presence of armed elements in Sanaa, defying an earlier deadline to leave their positions by the end of December, underlines the difficulty of restoring normality to the country, which was paralyzed for most of 2011 by protests against Saleh.
Tribal fighters led by Saleh’s opponents and Republican Guard troops commanded by the veteran leader’s son are still deployed in several areas of Sanaa, including the northern district of Hasaba, scene of some of the heaviest fighting.
The 48 hours begin on Thursday morning, Saba said. It was unclear if the new deadline would prove more effective than the last.
The body has no forces to ensure the deadline is met, but a government source told Reuters the panel would ask the international community to put pressure on any side that refused to withdraw.
The committee said it would also begin re-opening roads blocked off by rival forces during the unrest, warning it would “hold accountable” anyone who tried to hinder the process, without elaborating.
Under a plan drawn up by Yemen’s wealthier neighbors and signed by Saleh in November, the opposition and the ruling General People’s Congress party (GPC) shared out cabinet posts between them, forming a unity government to steer the country towards presidential elections in February.
Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy who helped clinch the deal, was due to arrive in Sanaa later on Wednesday to push for its full implementation.
Any successor to Saleh faces a host of challenges, including a rebellion in the north, a southern separatist movement, and al Qaeda’s most active wing, based in Yemen.
Men suspected of links to al Qaeda opened fire on a minibus carrying intelligence officers to work in the southern town of Aden on Wednesday, killing at least one officer and wounding five, an official, witnesses and medics said.
It was the latest in a series of attacks on security officers in the south. On Tuesday at least 12 militants and three government soldiers were killed in two clashes in the region, according to Yemeni security officials.
“Al Qaeda’s fingerprints seem to be all over this incident,” a security official told Reuters of Wednesday’s attack.
He said two of the wounded were in serious condition. He had earlier reported eight were killed or wounded in the attack.
The attack came amidst a power transition in which Saleh handed power to his deputy after signing a Gulf-brokered peace deal meant to end 10 months of mass protests against his 33-year rule.
The unrest has emboldened groups linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based regional wing, which the United States has called the most dangerous branch of the militant network, to expand their hold over parts of the province of Abyan in southern Yemen.
Yemeni troops have been fighting to dislodge the militants from the provincial capital, Zinjibar, and the town of Jaar.
Neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and the United States have long seen Saleh as a bulwark against the Islamist group’s Yemen branch, which has claimed responsibility for operations that include a failed plot to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane in 2009.
Washington and Riyadh are keen for the Gulf-backed power transfer deal to work, fearing that a vacuum in Yemen may give militants space to thrive near key oil and cargo shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; Writing by Nour Merza and Isabel Coles; Edited by Richard Meares