SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Yemeni warplanes bombed southern cities held by militants on Tuesday, while a top general called in a television interview for foreign intervention to help avert a regional security crisis.
Protests demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule continue to paralyse the country. He clings to power despite an assassination attempt that forced him to seek treatment in Saudi Arabia, leaving the country in limbo.
Islamist militants suspected of ties to al Qaeda have seized two cities in the southern province of Abyan, including its capital, Zinjibar, forcing tens of thousands of Yemenis to flee.
Western powers and neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda is exploiting a growing security vacuum in the country, from which it has already launched failed attacks against the United States and Riyadh.
A top general who defected from Saleh and joined protesters in March told broadcaster CNN International that the political standoff in Yemen, a country awash in weapons, put the impoverished country and its oil-rich Gulf neighbours at risk.
"We need the intervention of our friends and quickly because propagandas might take place against the country. It could put the country into a severe security stalemate. The entire region will be affected security-wise," said General Ali Mohsen.
Washington and Riyadh have failed to pressure Saleh into signing a Gulf Arab initiative for a power transfer, which he has backed out of three times at the last minute.
Saleh's opponents have accused him of letting his forces ease up on Islamist militants in the south, where violence is rising, to stoke fears in the international community that only he stands in the way of a militant takeover.
Despite Yemen's plans last week to step up military operations in the south, it has yet to loosen the militants' grip on several sites in Abyan. Militants took a makeshift military base last week and have surrounded another base.
Yemen ramped up air raids in Abyan on Tuesday, killing four gunmen in the militant-held city of Jaar, but local officials complain the raids often hit the wrong target.
A raid on the house of a top parliamentarian on the outskirts of Zinjibar killed four of his cousins and wounded six civilians in what appeared to be a botched operation.
A military officer on Tuesday told Yemen's state news agency that 40 al Qaeda-linked militants and two soldiers were killed in Zinjibar. It is difficult to verify the death toll, as many of the areas are still controlled by militants.
SALEH IN 'GENERALLY GOOD HEALTH'
Speculation about Saleh's health and the likelihood of his return to Yemen has been rife since his departure last month to Saudi Arabia, where he is recovering from burns following a bomb blast at his palace mosque.
The political limbo as he clings to power from his hospital bed has exasperated the tens of thousands of protesters who have camped out in the squares of Yemen's main cities for six months to demand his ouster. An uneasy calm prevails.
Western diplomats in Sanaa have said there is little chance Saleh will return, but the president's camp insists no transfer of power will take place until he is back on Yemeni soil.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Tuesday the president was in "generally good health" and that there were still talks over a Gulf Arab power transfer plan.
"The (Gulf) initiative is still on the table, according to the wishes of the Yemenis on both sides, and we are trying now to inquire about the extent that each side is willing to be decisive."
But there has been no political progress for months, and Mohsen told CNN he feared the deadlock could tip Yemen into civil war.
"Negative reactions might happen but we hope that God will keep us far from civil war and other problems."
The flight of thousands of people from violence in the south has also raised the spectre of a humanitarian crisis in a country already on the verge of collapse.
An official told a U.N. delegation visiting Yemen on Monday that some 54,000 people had fled Abyan to neighbouring Aden, near the mouth of a key shipping lane through which about 3 million barrels of oil pass daily.
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Sudam; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Peter Cooney)