(Updates with UN statement from penultimate paragraph.)
June 15 (Bloomberg) -- About 400 gunmen seized control of parts of a city in southern Yemen for several hours as violence spreads through the Arabian Peninsula country after President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure.
Security forces clashed with the armed men earlier today in Houta, Mohssein Ali, a resident, said in a telephone interview. The gunmen remained in the town after government forces retreated, then left after failing to take over a security base, said Adel Mabrook, another witness.
Fighting between the military and suspected al-Qaeda militants has increased since Saleh left the country for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after being injured in an attack on his palace. Yemen’s army has fought militants this month in the southern Abyan province on the Gulf of Aden coast. At least 80 militants and 60 soldiers have died since May, Abdu al-Janadi, the deputy information minister, said today.
Saleh’s government has said rising social unrest threatens to strengthen al-Qaeda, a concern also expressed by the U.S. The group has sought to use Yemen as a base from which to destabilize neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, and for attempted attacks on international targets including two U.S. synagogues last year.
The army destroyed an ammunition depot this month used by Islamic militants in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Abyan, the Defense Ministry said on its website June 11.
After months of anti-government protests, fighting in Yemen escalated when Saleh refused to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council plan calling for him to step down within 30 days and turn leadership over to Vice President Abduraboo Mansur Hadi in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Saleh is recuperating in Saudi Arabia after surgery for injuries sustained during the June 3 attack on a mosque in his presidential compound in Sana’a, the capital.
Saleh’s health is improving and he will return to Yemen in the coming days, al-Janadi said at a press conference in Sana’a today. He said Saleh won’t agree to revive the GCC plan or hand over power unless a timeline for implementation is agreed with the opposition.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered yesterday in Sana’a to demand the formation of a transitional council to replace Saleh’s administration. The organizing committee of the Popular Youth Revolution said in a statement read yesterday to protesters that any agreement stemming from talks with “remnants” of Saleh’s regime would be “illegitimate.”
The GCC foreign ministers urged “all parties to exercise restraint” to prevent more violence and fighting in the country, according to an e-mailed statement from the six-member group today. The GCC would “make all efforts” to maintain the security and stability of Yemen, it said.
A weak central government in Yemen risks mirroring the situation in Somalia across the Gulf of Aden, where there hasn’t been a functioning administration since 1991. Somalia has become a breeding ground for pirates who attack shipping lanes.
The escalation of violence in south Yemen, particularly in Abyan, has “caused intolerable suffering among the civilian population,” the United Nations office in Sana’a said in an e- mailed statement today. “Thousands of people including women and children have been forcefully displaced.”
The UN called on “all parties to ensure an immediate cessation of hostilities” and allow “humanitarian actors” to provide a response to the affected people, according to the statement.
--Editors: Terry Atlas, Steven Komarow
To contact the reporter on this story: Glen Carey in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com