SANA'A // As Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh maintained he was prepared to step down quickly if a peaceful transition can be negotiated, his ruling party, in an emergency meeting yesterday, rejected any change in leadership before the scheduled 2013 elections.
Ahmed al Sufi, the president's press secretary, said yesterday: "We think that Saleh staying, even after 2013, is a necessity because of the absence of a political force to negotiate with. There is nobody who can take over power."
After six weeks of violent and deadly protests in Yemen, Mr Saleh said on Friday he was willing to end his 32-year rule and step aside, although on the condition that he leaves the country in "safe hands".
"I could leave power, even in a few hours, on condition of maintaining respect and prestige," Mr Saleh said in an interview late Saturday with al Arabiya TV. "I have to take the country to safe shores. I'm holding on to power in order to hand it over peaceably."
He insisted he would not leave the presidency "humiliated" and that even if he stepped down as president, he would remain head of his General Congress Party, leaving the door open for his continued involvement in the nation's politics.
Mr Saleh also appeared to warn against any sudden transition by saying Yemen is a "time bomb" and, without continued dialogue, could fragment along regional and tribal lines, sending the country into a civil war.
His description of Yemen angered anti-government protesters who watched the interview. They threw shoes at the television screen and called for massive rallies this week, promising they will not leave their protest sites until he quits.
Major General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a former close ally of the president who has since joined the protesters, promised yesterday to support the youth-led revolution until Mr Saleh is gone.
Colonel Askar Zuail, Gen Mohsen's spokesman, told thousands of protesters in Sana'a yesterday evening that the general has called for Mr Saleh "to step down peacefully by an order of the people" and that he would support the "peaceful youth revolution whatever the cost will be".
Mohammed al Sabri, a leader in the Joint Meeting Parties, an opposition coalition of six parties, said the president "has provoked all Yemeni people in his interview when he described Yemen as a time bomb and the tribesmen as saboteurs."
The opposition blamed the demands of the president and his relatives for immunity from prosecution as the reason negotiations on a peaceful transfer of power have been thwarted. The negotiations, that began Thursday between Mr Saleh and Major General al Ahmar were reported to have stalled.
Mr al Sabri said: "They are asking for guarantees that the president's relatives will not be prosecuted. Nobody can do that. Nobody has the right and ability to give immunity to legal prosecutions to anybody."
Mr Saleh's regime has been shaken by waves of defections in recent days from his allies in the army, cabinet, ruling party and the tribes. Many former allies withdrew support after at least 52 protesters were killed and hundreds wounded on March 18 when security forces and snipers on rooftops fired on a peaceful opposition rally in Sana'a.
Concern about's Yemen's security was raised yesterday by the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, who said, in an interview with ABC television, that Mr Saleh's eventual fall or his replacement by a weaker leader would pose "a real problem" for US counter-terrorism work.
Mr Gates said Mr Saleh's government and the Yemeni security services have helped the United States in fighting al Qa'eda's Yemeni branch.
"So if that government collapses, or is replaced by one who is dramatically more weak, then I think we'd face some additional challenges out of Yemen, there's no question about it. It's a real problem," he said.
The Washington Post said that, according to US spy agencies, al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula could be close to launching an attack as the group may be seeking to capitalise on unrest in the country.
Armed men suspected to be al Qa'eda militants attacked a military post in the central province of Mareb, killing seven soldiers and wounding seven others. According to security and local sources, the attackers set fire to a pickup mounted with a machine gun and fled with an armoured vehicle that belonged to the post.
In the southern province of Abyan, Islamic militants seized control yesterday of an ammunition factory, according to witnesses.
After controlling the ammunition factory in al Husn district, allowing citizens to loot some of the ammunitions, the militants moved to Khanfar district and controlled the presidential palace and Abyan radio station, said Isam Ali, a journalist who works for Abyan radio station. He said the seizure of the palace and radio station took place after clashes with army troops and that a soldier was killed.
After the clashes, troops withdrew and militants took control, Mr Ali said.
Abyan is considered one of the strongholds of al Qa'eda militants and saw violent confrontations between the army and armed militants in recent months. On Saturday, residents of Jaar district in Abyan said militants took control of the town.
Mr al Sufi blamed al Qa'eda for the attacks.
"Al Qa'eda has taken control of military and security posts in Abyan and some other places. It is making use of the loose security situation caused by the protests and is encouraged by the obstinate position of the opposition on the means of peaceful transfer of power," Mr al Sufi said.
However, Ali Dahmas, an opposition leader in Abyan, accused the government of being behind the security chaos in some parts of the country.
"This is a stupid play the regime is using to frighten the West; that, if Saleh steps down, al Qa'eda will take over. We know these militants by name and we know they have good connections with the government," Mr Dahmas said.
Spurred by concerns over the security withdrawal from some cities, people in cities across the country have begun to set up committees to oversee security in their regions.