SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the U.S. regrets that Yemen's president has not complied with agreements to leave the country and allow elections for a successor.
Her comments came as Yemen's foreign minister suggested next month's presidential vote could be delayed because of security concerns. A top ruling party official also told The Associated Press that President Ali Abdullah Saleh met with high-level security officials this week and decided to ask parliament to delay the elections until May 22, which would be a violation of the U.S.-backed agreement the president signed in November. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
"There have been agreements with respect to the way forward that have not been fulfilled," Clinton said during a trip to Ivory Coast. "We regret that the president has thus far failed to comply with his own commitments to leave the country, to permit elections to go forward that give the people a chance to be heard and be represented."
Saleh, Yemen's authoritarian leader of 33 years, agreed under pressure to a plan brokered by Yemen's Gulf Arab neighbors to transfer power to his vice president and hold presidential elections in February that will essentially rubber-stamp the vice president's takeover.
The agreement did not spell out that Saleh must leave the country. But Clinton's remarks appeared to confirm what Yemeni officials close to Saleh have told the AP — the alongside the Gulf-brokered deal, Saleh made a "gentleman's agreement" with the United States to leave the country.
Saleh, however, may be having difficulties finding a country to take refuge in. And since the agreement was signed, there have been growing fears he may try to slip out of the deal and cling to power. The suggestion of a delay in the vote will feed those fears.
The Gulf initiative says that presidential elections are to be held on Feb. 21, and that Saleh will not be allowed to run. It was agreed that the only presidential candidate will be Saleh's deputy.
In late December, Saleh said he would leave Yemen to help calm the turmoil in his country, and made a request for a visa to receive medical treatment in the United States, but officials in his ruling party later announced he would stay.
Activists behind Yemen's nearly year-old uprising demand Saleh step down and stand trial for the deaths of hundreds of protesters. They are not happy with the Gulf-brokered agreement because it gives Saleh immunity from prosecution if he relinquishes power.
In an interview aired Tuesday on Al-Arabiya television network, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, a veteran of Saleh's regime, said it will be difficult to have presidential elections if the security situation is not resolved.
"I am one of those who would like the (presidential elections) to take place in this manner," he said. "Unfortunately, events have taken place, particularly with regard to security, that if they are not resolved ... will make it difficult to have elections on February 21."
Even before Yemen's uprising began early last year, it was already the poorest country in the Arab world with a weak central government, riven by tribal divisions and several separate conflicts.
Yemen is also home to one of the most active and dangerous al-Qaida branches in the world, which has already been linked to attacks on U.S. soil and in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qaida militants have taken advantage of the turmoil in the country over the past year to seize control of several areas in the south, giving them a territorial foothold that could be used to plan and organize more attacks.
The opposition accuses Saleh of allowing al-Qaida-linked militants to overrun those areas to bolster his claims that he must remain in power to secure the country.
The United States and its western and Gulf Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia long considered Saleh a pivotal, though not entirely reliable, partner in the fight against al-Qaida. But the United States withdrew its support last summer and said Saleh should step down. Both the U.S. and its Gulf allies put heavy pressure on Saleh to sign the transfer of power agreement.
Clinton said the United States remains focused on combating terrorism in Yemen and "ensuring that al-Qaida does not gain a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula."
She spoke a day after a band of al-Qaida militants took full control of a town 100 miles south of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, overrunning army positions, storming the local prison and freeing at least 150 inmates.
The capture of the town of Radda on Monday symbolizes how much the militants have taken advantage of deteriorating security and a growing power vacuum during the uprising. The town in the province of Bayda is a key gateway linking Sanaa to Zinjibar, the capital city of Abyan province that has been under al-Qaida control for since last spring.
Dozens of tribal leaders from across Bayda met Tuesday with security and government officials to discuss the situation in Radda.
Sheik Saleh al-Awadi, who attended the meeting, told AP that the tribes have given security and government officials 48 hours to restore security to Bayda. He said tribal leaders told officials that the state is responsible for the al-Qaida takeover because they allowed it to happen. He said tribal chiefs also told officials the government should leave the province if they are unable to control the situation and that the tribes will handle the security crisis on their own.
"The tribes told the officials that they hold them fully responsible and that if the state is denying accusations that it has allowed a militant takeover, they are responsible for getting the militants out," al-Awadi.
The local head of the Republican Guard troops, a powerful force led by Saleh's son, told the tribal leaders that security forces did not allow the takeover and will send more troops from the capital to fight the militants, al-Awadi said.
Sheik Khaled al-Dahab, from Bayda, told AP that his brother, Tariq, is responsible for the al-Qaida militant takeover in Radda.
He expressed regret for his brother's actions and said he holds Saleh's regime responsible for giving his brother and other militants in Yemen encouragement and funds to grow more powerful in order to create shifting alliances that he could play on politically.
Al-Qaida-linked militants in Yemen are now in control of strategic roads and towns, including large swaths of territory, that span from the country's northern border with Saudi Arabia and stretch thousands of kilometers south to the Gulf Aden, creating a security dilemma that has forced tens of thousands of Yemenis to flee and others to live under al-Qaida rule.
Klapper reported from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Associated Press reporter Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects that power transfer agreement was signed in November.)