SANAA, Yemen (AP) — The White House counterterrorism chief briefed Yemen's vice president Monday on Washington's push for a swift transfer of power in the increasingly unstable nation, rattled by five months of anti-government protests and a growing threat from al-Qaida, a government official said.
John Brennan met with Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in a bid to revive a power transfer deal proposed by Yemen's neighbors. Hadi has headed the government since embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh left for neighboring Saudi Arabia to be treated for wounds he suffered in a June 3 attack on his compound in Sanaa, Yemen's capital.
Brennan's meeting with Hadi follows talks with Saleh in a Saudi Arabia hospital a day earlier. Brennan asked Saleh on Sunday to "expeditiously" agree to the transition deal which would have him transfer power to the vice president and step down, in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
It was the strongest and most public sign yet of U.S. pressure on Saleh to accept the deal, brokered by Gulf Arab countries led by staunch U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.
On Monday, Brennan briefed Hadi on the details of his meeting with Saleh, said the Yemeni government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Saleh, who has held on to power for over three decades, has balked at signing the deal to step down. A Yemeni government statement said he told his American visitor that any transfer of power must be carried out in a democratic framework and under the guidance of the constitution, suggesting a gradual process he wants to oversee. The statement said Saleh views the proposal as a "basis" for a national dialogue, language that suggests the Yemeni leader has not agreed to adopt the document.
Brennan urged Saleh to sign the transfer agreement quickly and that "assistance will flow to Yemen" when the deal is carried out, the White House said in a statement.
"The United States believes that a transition in Yemen should begin immediately so that the Yemeni people can realize their aspirations," the White House said.
Brennan told Saleh that resolving the political crisis in his country is important so that the nation can face its serious challenges, "including the terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of Yemeni citizens," the statement said.
Brennan is expected to meet with Yemeni opposition groups during his visit.
Hadi briefed Brennan on his previous meeting with the opposition groups regarding the transition plan, which envisions presidential elections two months after the initial handover of power.
A member of the opposition said Monday that a proposed amendment to the transition plan, presented by Hadi, has been rejected because it was seen as an attempt to bypass the proposal. Abdullah Obal said the proposed amendment extended the transition period beyond the originally suggested period of two months.
The proposal has been outright rejected by anti-government protesters who have staged massive demonstrations across the nation since February to force Saleh out of office. They insist that Saleh must step down immediately and unconditionally.
Sunday's meeting took place against the backdrop of a rising threat by al-Qaida-linked militants in the nearly lawless south of the country. The militants have taken advantage of the turmoil of the uprising against Saleh to flex their muscles, capturing and holding territory in areas of the south, including a provincial capital close to the strategic port city of Aden on the Arabian Sea.
Brennan's visit also appeared to reflect Washington's concerns about the growing strength of Islamic militants in Yemen, which is close to the Gulf's vast oil fields and strategic shipping lanes in the Arabian and Red seas. U.S. officials say Washington has increased its security presence and operations in Yemen amid the turmoil.
Meanwhile, three civilians were killed and seven wounded when soldiers shelled villages in the Arhab mountains, northeast of Sanaa, a medical official said. The attack came in response to a dawn raid by armed tribesmen on an army checkpoint during which two soldiers were killed and four injured, the official added.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The region witnesses frequent clashes between Republican Guards forces commanded by Saleh's son, Ahmed, and anti-Saleh tribes of Arhab.
Since April, shelling by government troops has killed around 30 civilians and left 200 injured, according Sheik Hamid Assem of the Arhab tribe.