SANA'A // Six militants and three civilians were killed yesterday in air strikes in southern Yemen, bringing to at least 40 the number of militants killed in the past two days, Yemen's defence ministry said yesterday.
The fighting was further evidence of growing turmoil in Yemen and it came just two days after General Ali Mohsen, an increasingly powerful opposition leader, said he would not endorse any plan that allows President Ali Abdullah Saleh to return to power except the long-standing Gulf Cooperation Council proposal.
General Mohsen said on Sunday he supported the 30-day period to transfer power spelled out in the GCC plan. The general's comments carried increasing weight in Yemen as more members of Mr Saleh's security forces defected.
A long-time ally of Mr Saleh, General Mohsen deserted the government in March after pro-government gunmen killed more than 50 protesters in Sana'a's Taghyeer Square in March.
He said he now controls more military power than the government.
Yemen's ruling party has rejected the 30-day proposal. "The 30-days agreement is part of history," Abdu Ganadi, the spokesman for the Yemeni government, said on Monday. "Saleh was just attacked in his own palace, so the situation now is different and the tension in the country will take months to solve."
Mr Ganadi said that the government would not accept any deal that did not give Mr Saleh six months in power after he returned from Saudi Arabia, where he is being treated for wounds sustained in a June 3 assassination attempt.
"Power transfer will take six to eight months. If not, a civil war is the only option."
It is unclear when, or if, Mr Saleh would return to Yemen. At times, government spokesmen say he will return soon. Other sources say Mr Saleh was badly injured and was in no condition to govern.
Saud Al Faisal, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, said in Jeddah yesterday that Mr Saleh was in "generally good health".
Yemen's opposition leaders were worried that the country would erupt in civil war unless Mr Saleh agreed soon to a quick transfer of power. The country has been in limbo for months and the paralysis has worsened since Mr Saleh was taken to Riyadh for medical care.
Mr Saleh's opponents were perplexed that he would insist on staying in power. On July 17, he will have been in power for 33 years.
Under the GCC plan, Mr Saleh and all those who served under him would be granted immunity from prosecution. "What more would someone asked for? Everything was put on the table and Saleh still rejected it," said Mohammed Awami, an official in the ruling General People Congress party.
Mr Awami said that the former leaders of Egypt and Tunisia respectively, Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, would have been thrilled with such an offer when they were driven from power.
Most political factions in Yemen welcomed the idea that the vice-president, Abdurabu Hadi, would assume power immediately.
However, General Mohsen said Mr Hadi was not ready to assume the presidency. "One day he acts as a leader, while the other day he doesn't," the general said. "He needs to rule with power and I believe he will reach that stage very soon but that is not the case now."
Abdul Ghani Al Shamiri, a spokesman for General Mohsen, said that the international community had not exerted enough influence during the upheaval. He said that the United States and Saudi Arabia had been too lenient with Mr Saleh.
Sources had been saying for months that both governments were trying to get Mr Saleh to accept the GCC plan but that the president keeps rejecting it.
General Mohsen said he believed someone in the government was behind most of the chaos in the country. He blamed the government for retreating from the province of Abyan, allowing militants with suspected links to Al Qaeda to take control of the region.
He said that Al Qaeda entered Abyan as if they were asked by the government to take over. He repeated the claim endorsed by most opposition leaders that "the government did so to scare the West and neighbouring countries" with the Al Qaeda threat. "The government helped Al Qaeda by evacuating the province," he explained.
"The militants were not well armed," the general said, "but they became armed when the government handed them its military bases and everything inside them."
On the economic front, hundreds of thousands of residents have lost their jobs since March, according to the Ministry of Civil Services. Food and fuel prices have soared.
Seven people have been killed in Sana'a this week in front of petrol stations as prices of fuel have risen 700 per cent in the black market.
Yemen opposition parties have said that they were on the verge of forming a transitional council to take control of the country. General Mohsen criticised that idea. He said the GCC proposal was the only way of solve the crisis. His comments raised fears of friction among opposition leaders. "We cannot create two governments. The vice president must take the lead and decide quickly what is in favour of Yemen", the general said. "If not, the entire region will be affected greatly by the Yemen crisis."
An aide to Mr Saleh rejected the opposition claims and said that if the transitional council was formed, civil war would break out.
"How could you form a transition government when a government already exists?" the adviser said. "The international community would never accept this."
Meanwhile, Yemeni authorities yesterday released on bail Hasan Zaid, an opposition leader, after detaining him before his flight to Saudi Arabia. Mr Zaid said he had been held due to allegations that he incited protesters to occupy government buildings.
Mr Zaid is secretary-general of Al Haq, one of six opposition parties that make up the Joint Meeting Parties coalition.
Additional reporting from Mohammed al Qadhi