Middle East

Yemen's Hamid al-Ahmar urges President Saleh to leave

Media captionHamid al-Ahmar: "He thinks he owns Yemen"

One of Yemen's most influential political figures says President Ali Abdullah Saleh must leave the country, not just step down from power.

Hamid al-Ahmar, of the Islamist Islah party, told the BBC of opposition plans to escalate anti-government protests.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in several Yemeni cities on Wednesday.

Many also blame the government for blasts at an ammunitions factory on Monday that left 150 people dead.

The explosions, in the town of Jaar in central Abyan province, happened while residents were searching for ammunition left behind by suspected Islamist militants who had been involved in clashes with government forces in the area on Sunday.

Yemen officials have blamed al-Qaeda for the blasts, but the opposition accuses the president of withdrawing his forces and allowing the area to be overrun with militants as a ploy to sow fears of chaos if he leaves.

President Saleh has agreed to resign by January 2012, but the opposition and protesters are calling for his immediate departure.

Mr Ahmar told the BBC that the president and his family "have no immediate future in Yemen. They should leave power, they should leave the country for their own safety".

He said the opposition would escalate the protests and push for Mr Saleh's resignation.

"If he goes now, he can still go with some dignity, but his time is running out," he added.

Mr Ahmar is a powerful figure in both tribal and political circles in Yemen and his comments are the first clear indication that the embattled president will not be able to stay in the country, our correspondent in Yemen, who cannot be named for security reasons, says.

It puts the president in an incredibly difficult position as his options for exile are limited, she adds. He has a house in Germany, but with protesters demanding his prosecution over what they say are crimes he committed during his time in power, he is very unlikely to settle in the West.

Another option, Saudi Arabia - a major power broker in Yemen - has been "surprisingly quiet" about the current crisis, according to one diplomat in Sanaa, leading to speculation that Riyadh is turning its back on the president.

Image caption President Saleh has been in power for 33 years

The US and Europe now view President Saleh's resignation as the only way out of Yemen's increasingly dangerous crisis, but many in the West are unhappy at the prospect of power falling into the hands of the popular Islah party, says our correspondent.

Washington sees Islah as a dangerous force, with links to al-Qaeda. Mr Ahmar denies this and insists Washington has nothing to worry about.

"The chaos in Yemen is now," he told the BBC. "We are already talking to [the Americans], assuring them that any satisfactory plan to fight terror in Yemen will be respected by the new leadership of Yemen."

President Saleh has been in power for 33 years and has been a key US ally in the region, conducting numerous joint anti-terror raids. Despite this, militancy has continued to flourish.

It is one of a range of security issues in the country, including a separatist movement in the south and an uprising of Shia Houthi rebels in the north.

Yemen is also chronically poor - unemployment runs at about 40%, and there are rising food prices and acute levels of malnutrition.

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