SANAA (Reuters) - A senior U.S. official held talks on Wednesday with government officials in Yemen, which is teetering on the brink of civil war over President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s refusal to meet protesters’ demands to step down.
The United States and Saudi Arabia fear that a power vacuum and tribal warfare in Yemen will be exploited by the local wing of al Qaeda to launch attacks in the region and beyond.
On Wednesday, dozens of al Qaeda militants escaped from a prison in the city of al-Mukalla in southern Yemen, a region where security forces and militants often clash.
A Yemeni government source said Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, would meet Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi and Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is acting president.
He was also due to hold talks with Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been widely thought to be next in line for the presidency until protests broke out earlier this year.
Saleh is in Saudi Arabia recovering from injuries sustained in an attack on his palace in Sanaa nearly three weeks ago.
Feltman’s talks will cover a transfer of power from the president to his deputy, the government source said.
As commander of the Republican Guards, the main strike force in Yemen, Ahmed Ali holds an influential position in the country of 23 million, which sits on the southern border of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter.
Saleh has defied calls from global leaders, elements in his own military and tens of thousands of protesters to end his 33- year-old rule, which has brought Yemen close to financial ruin.
He has also exasperated his rich Gulf Arab neighbors by three times agreeing to step down, only to pull out of a power transition plan at the last minute and cling on to power.
In an early bid to placate protesters demanding his ouster, Saleh promised not to hand power to his son, but many Yemenis say Saleh relatives including Ahmed Ali still hold key levers of power, blocking any transition without Saleh’s consent.
Opposition parties allied with youth activists have also insisted that Saleh formally hand over power to Hadi as a step toward a new government and democracy.
An aide to Saleh said on Wednesday his health was on the mend and that he had been receiving guests and giving orders on Yemen’s day-to-day affairs, including power and fuel shortages.
“The president has rejected a request from several members of his family to come to Riyadh to visit him, and stressed that he will return home soon,” Ahmed al-Sufi, the president’s media secretary, told Reuters.
Dozens of al Qaeda militants escaped from a jail in Mukalla following an attack on the compound. State media said three were killed in a clash with troops and two were recaptured.
“Ten of the escapees are dangerous elements who belonged to a cell that had attacked government officials and tourists,” a local security official told Reuters.
One soldier was killed and two were wounded when militants opened fire on al-Munawara prison in Mukalla, a security official said.
“The militants opened fire on the prison gates and exchanged fire with the guards, injuring two and killing one,” the security official said, adding that 62 prisoners had fled.
All the prisoners were Yemeni and most had been jailed after returning from Iraq where they fought in militant ranks, he said.
Reporting by Mohamed Sudam in Sanaa and Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden; writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Alistair Lyon