SANAA, March 22: Yemen’s president said on Tuesday his country would descend into civil war if he were forced to quit and Washington voiced concern about instability in the Arabian state that has become an Al Qaeda stronghold. Seven weeks of unrelenting anti-government protests and defections among the ruling elite have piled pressure on Saleh, a US ally against radical ambitions in the Arabian peninsula, to step down immediately after 32 years in power.

But an aide said he would leave office only after organising parliamentary polls and establishing democratic institutions, by January 2012 — a declaration the opposition promptly rejected.

“Ali Abdullah Saleh does not seek power,” Saleh’s media secretary Ahmed al-Sufi said. “Ali Abdullah Saleh will not leave without knowing who he is handing over to.”

Opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabry, rejecting Saleh’s offer to go by January 2012, said the coming hours would be decisive.

In speeches to army officers and tribal leaders in Sanaa, Saleh said Yemen faced a danger of civil war and disintegration because of efforts to stage a “coup” against his rule.

“You have an agenda to tear down the country, the country will be divided into three instead of two...(parts). A southern part, northern part and a middle part. This is what is being sought by defectors against...unity,” he said, referring to northern Shia rebels and Al Qaeda militants.

“Those who want to climb up to power through coups should know that this is out of the question. The homeland will not be stable, there will be a civil war, a bloody war. They should carefully consider this,” Saleh told army commanders.

Presidential guards loyal to Saleh surrounded an air force battalion in the coastal city of Hudaida after its commander said he supported the protesters.

Liquefied natural gas producer Yemen LNG has told customers that unrest could lead to supply disruptions, leading stakeholder Total said.

Slide into failed state: Western countries fear the political crisis could hasten a slide into failed nation status for a country that borders the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, and major shipping routes. One scenario could see the country split into separate zones along tribal, military or regional lines.

Al Qaeda has already used Yemen to attempt attacks in Saudi Arabia and the United States in the past two years. The Houthi movement has staged a number of revolts against Saleh.

One opposition leader offered Saleh the prospect of secure retirement if, like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he would go quietly, unlike Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi.

“He shouldn’t follow the style of Qadhafi by destroying the country and killing people,” Yassin Noman, rotating head of Yemen’s opposition coalition said.

“After this long term of governing, he should say: Thank you my people, I leave you peacefully.”

“I know the morality of Yemeni people. If he left peacefully, they will look at him as a real leader. He will be able to live wherever he likes,” Noman said. “They will ensure him a very nice life. His dignity will be kept.”

Several generals and officials have abandoned Saleh this week after a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on Friday.

On Tuesday, Abdel-Malik Mansour, Yemen’s envoy to the Arab League, told Al Arabiya television he was siding with protesters. Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani, whom Saleh sacked as environment minister on Sunday along with the rest of the cabinet, said on Facebook he was joining “the revolutionaries”.—Reuters

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