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Yemen opposition in talks with VP over transition

Yemen's political opposition held talks with the country's acting leader Monday in a bid to defuse months...

A Yemeni anti-government protester holds signs that read in English and Arabic "Go Out" and "Leave" during a demonstration calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on 30 May 2011. AFP

Yemen's political opposition held talks with the country's acting leader Monday in a bid to defuse months of violent political deadlock over the future of veteran leader President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh, forced to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for wounds suffered in an attack on his palace earlier this month, has refused to leave office despite nearly six months of street protests and many diplomatic attempts to remove him.

The ensuing political paralysis and long-standing conflicts with Islamist insurgents, separatists and rebel tribesmen have fanned Western and regional fears of Yemen collapsing into chaos and giving al Qaeda a stronghold alongside oil shipping routes.

A member of a group of opposition parties calling on Saleh to formally step down, who declined to be identified, said the meeting aimed to resurrect a plan by Yemen's oil-rich Gulf neighbours to ease the president out.

"It's to discuss a means to carry out the Gulf initiative and transfer power to the vice president," he said before talks began. A member of that coalition Sunday said vice president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was refusing to meet with them.

Saleh on three previous occasions backed out of that plan at the last minute. It envisioned him leaving office inside a month, with a guarantee of immunity from prosecution.

Fierce street battles between Saleh's security forces and those of General Ali al-Mohsen al-Ahmar, who abandoned the president in March, engulfed the capital when the most recent bid for an agreed political transition collapsed last month.

A cease-fire has held in Sanaa since Saleh left following the 3 June attack on his palace.

Over 200 people were killed and thousands fled during two weeks of clashes between his loyalists and the forces of tribal leader Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, who also backs the protesters.

Sanaa is now dangerously short of fuel, electricity and water, and violence in a southern province whose capital Islamist gunmen seized last month has worsened.

DISPLACED SLEEPING IN SCHOOLS

Yemen's army killed 21 al Qaeda members in the southern province of Abyan Saturday, 18 of them in Zinjibar, the provincial capital that fell. Ten soldiers were killed in fighting there and another city, Lawdar, state media said.

At least four soldiers and several gunmen were killed in running battles in Zinjibar Sunday. An army officer was killed near the southern port city of Aden when an unidentified assailant threw a grenade at him, a security official said.

Yemen's government, itself paralysed in the broader political standoff, is struggling to provide medicine and other essentials to people who have fled Zinjibar.

At least 10,000 have taken refuge in Aden, many of them sleeping in schools. The U.N. children's agency UNICEF warned last week that the number of displaced may hit 40,000.

Opposition parties have said they will form their own transitional assembly within a week if Saleh does not cede power. It is not clear whether those parties have any significant influence over many of the protesters.

His opponents have accused him of handing over Zinjibar to Islamists to reinforce his threat that the end of his three-decade rule, as demanded by protesters, would amount to ceding the region to al Qaeda.

Saleh has not been seen in public since the palace attack, which left him with burns and shrapnel wounds. Yemen's ambassador in London said Saturday that he was recovering and in stable condition.

Saudi medical sources and Yemeni officials said Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Megawar and another cabinet member injured in the palace attack had undergone further surgery and described their condition as "serious."

Timeline

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