SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni protesters demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule blamed him on Tuesday for bloodshed that has raised U.S. fears of chaos, even as indirect talks to resolve the crisis got under way.
The death toll in explosions at a bullet factory in a southern town where Islamists seemed to have driven out government forces rose to at least 140, a reminder of the instability that Saleh’s Western allies fear will spread in the poorest Arab state.
The main coalition of opposition groups said Saleh was to blame for the presence of militants, including al Qaeda, in Abyan province, where the blast took place on Monday after security forces quit the town following clashes with militants.
“We condemn this ugly crime and accuse the president and his people of involvement with al Qaeda and armed groups to whom government institutions have been handed over in Abyan. The chaos was planned in advance,” it said in a statement.
“Saleh’s continuation in power is a danger to Yemen, its people and international interests.”
Abyan residents said in recent days that security forces had deserted the town of Jaar, scene of the blast. The governors of Jawf and Saada provinces in the north have also left, perhaps fearing confrontations with tribes opposed to the president.
In central Yemen, the governor of Maarib was stabbed after trying to disperse a protest earlier this month.
Saleh, who has been alternately conciliatory and defiant, has vowed in public to make no more concessions to opponents demanding he step down after 32 years of authoritarian rule.
A perennial survivor of civil wars and militancy, he has said Yemen could slide into armed conflict and fragment along regional and tribal lines if he leaves office immediately.
But protesters who have been camped out around Sanaa University since early February also said they found the withdrawal of security and officials in some areas suspicious and accused Saleh of fomenting strife for political reasons.
“Saleh wants to scare us and the world with chaos, which he has started causing in some areas,” said Ali Abdelghani, 31, a civil servant among thousands of protesters in Sanaa.
“But we are capable of exposing this game. There are popular committees in all provinces to bring security as the president has removed security in some places for chaos to spread.”
Yemen’s al Qaeda wing claimed responsibility for a foiled attempt in late 2009 to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit, and for U.S.-bound cargo bombs sent in October 2010.
U.S. officials have said openly they like working with Saleh — who has allowed unpopular U.S. military operations in Yemen against al Qaeda — and Saleh has said the U.S. ambassador is involved in talks to find a solution.
Sources on both sides said indirect negotiations to broker a transition from Saleh to his opponents had restarted after direct talks stalled. The aim was to agree on a framework deal whose details could be worked out in direct talks later.
“There are indirect negotiations through mediators with all parties, and there are positive signs,” a government official said.
A close aide to top general Ali Mohsen, who has thrown his weight behind the protesters, confirmed that mediators were still going back and forth.
Dozens of policemen and soldiers from different units joined the protests on Tuesday, chanting slogans such as “The people want the fall of the regime.”
“We are optimistic about the success of our revolution. It is just a question of time,” said Marwan Hussein, 18, a student.
Washington and its ally Saudi Arabia have long seen Saleh as a bulwark of stability who can keep al Qaeda from extending its foothold in a country that many see as close to disintegration.
Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, a key tribal figure who also belongs to the Islamist party Islah, said he wanted the United States and European countries to call directly for Saleh’s departure.
“They should do what they did in Egypt. We don’t need what is going on in Libya. We don’t need that much support. But support like what was done in Egypt would be enough to finish things,” he said.
Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress has proposed a new government to activate Saleh’s offer of a new constitution ahead of early parliamentary and presidential elections.
“Those who are hungry for power ... they should turn to elections instead of chaos. They will get to power if they have the trust of the people,” Saleh told supporters on Monday.
The opposition say they believe Saleh is manoeuvring to avoid limits on his family’s future activities and secure a guarantee that they would not be prosecuted for corruption.
Any deal would probably involve the resignation of Saleh and General Mohsen, a kinsman and former ally who sent troops to protect the protesters last week.
Opposition figures say Saleh could hand over to a new vice-president, in line with the constitution. They expected the opposition to choose a prime minister.
However, as in Egypt, where the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last month after 30 years in power was an inspiration to Saleh’s opponents, the focus would be on amendments to the current basic law, rather than on drafting a new constitution from scratch.
The transition was likely to proceed faster than the end-of-year deadline Saleh has proposed.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Kevin Liffey