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Saleh gives order for dialogue with Yemen opposition, foreign chief says

Instruction comes as army regains control of strategic stadium and Yemeni diplomat says president's medical condition did not allow him to appear in the media.

Anti-government protesters march yesterday during a demonstration to demand the resignation of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Taiz. Five soldiers were killed and six wounded during an operation in the southern city of Zinjibar. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
Anti-government protesters march yesterday during a demonstration to demand the resignation of Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Taiz. Five soldiers were killed and six wounded during an operation in the southern city of Zinjibar. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

ADEN // Yemen's foreign minister said he was instructed by Ali Adullah Saleh, the president, to set up talks with the opposition to transfer power in the crisis-hit country as the army was able to retake control of a strategic spot in its battle with militants in the south.

Abu Bakr Al Qirbi, the foreign minister, spoke from Saudi Arabia after a quick visit with Mr Saleh, who was badly burnt and suffered other wounds in the attack on his compound in Sana'a on June 3.

"The president directed his deputy and the government to begin dialogue with the other parties in the opposition in accordance with the Gulf initiative and the latest UN Security Council statement," Mr Al Qirbi said, speaking on Yemeni television, late on Wednesday.

The plan for transferring power was made months ago. In return for stepping down, Mr Saleh and his family would receive immunity from prosecution. He promised at least three times to sign the plan but each time balked at the last minute.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, which brokered the plan, has tried to convince Mr Saleh to step down, although he has held onto power since he was injured through his sons and other relatives, some of whom command military units.

But recent days have seen militants - some believed to have links to Al Qaeda - seizing upon the growing chaos to take over entire towns in Southern Yemen, and pressure is mounting for a resolution of the crisis.

Yesterday, the army regained control of a strategic spot in the southern city of Zinjibar, which has almost entirely fallen under the militants' control.

"Five soldiers were killed and six others were wounded in heavy fighting with Al Qaeda militants in Zinjibar's east," a military official said, adding that there were also "deaths and injuries in the ranks of the enemy".

A medical official in Aden confirmed the toll.

Battles have raged since Wednesday in the area surrounding Al Wahda stadium on the outskirts of Zinjibar, most of which fell to the Islamists a month ago.

The army yesterday fired artillery shells at the stadium and "managed to regain its control over it", said the official.

The same source said on Wednesday that losing the stadium would have deprived the troops of a strategic location since weapons were airlifted by helicopter to the brigade stationed in the arena.

The latest violence has raised the army death toll to at least 135 troops killed since the militants, who call themselves Partisans of Sharia, seized control of most of Zinjibar on May 29.

The military official renewed his calls for tribes in the Abyan province - of which Zinjibar is the capital - "to join in the fight against Al Qaeda".

In an interview published on CNN's website on Wednesday, the Yemeni vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, said US drones were targeting Al Qaeda leaders using voice recognition technology.

Two types of US drones are being used in the war on Al Qaeda, Mr Hadi said.

The first takes pictures and collects information while the other one carries missiles.

Mr Hadi insisted that Saleh will return. He did not say when, explaining that it was up to the doctors treating him to decide.

"I saw him immediately after the incident, he had burns on his face, burns on his hands, some burns on his chest and there was a piece of wood that was sticking between his ribs," Mr Hadi said.

"Now thanks to God the president's health has improved a lot and improves more every day."

He might return within "days, weeks, months ... this is a decision up to the doctors", Mr Hadi said. However, Mr Saleh would "give a statement to the nation from Riyadh through television".

But a Yemeni diplomat in Riyadh said on Wednesday that Mr Saleh's condition did not allow him to appear in the media.

"Saudi authorities, in compliance with doctors' orders, forbid any filming or visits to president Saleh, as this contradicts the atmosphere needed for his recovery," the diplomat said.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse