Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh - AFP - 25.3.11
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh gesturing during a gathering of supporters in Sanaa on February 20, 2011 Photo by AFP
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Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh said on Saturday that al-Qaida could take over in many parts of the Arabian Peninsula country if he leaves office under a Gulf-brokered deal which he said he has accepted.

Saleh has twice backed out of the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) transition deal, most recently on Wednesday, despite diplomatic wrangling by U.S., Gulf and European officials.

But a Yemeni official said Abdullatif al-Zayani, the GCC secretary-general who has headed mediation efforts, would arrive again in Yemen on Saturday, and a signing by Saleh and the opposition could take place as early as late Saturday or on Sunday.

"If the system falls...Qaida will capture Maarib, Hadramout,Shabwa, Abyan and al-Jouf (and) it will control the situation," Saleh said, listing provinces where al-Qaida's Yemen-based wing has been active.

"This is the message that I send to our friends and brothers in the United States and the European Union ... the successor will be worse that what we have currently," Saleh said.

"We welcome the Gulf initiative and we say that we will work with it in a positive way for the sake of our homeland (although) in reality it is a mere coup operation ... and part of foreign pressures and agendas," Saleh said at a ceremony.

On Friday, Saleh called for early presidential elections, which he said was aimed at preventing bloodshed as three months of protests raged on in the fractious country.

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in cities across Yemen on Friday, demanding Saleh end his three-decade rule.

Washington and Riyadh, both targets of foiled attacks by al-Qaida's Yemen-based wing, are keen to end a stalemate that has pushed Yemen further to the brink of chaos and could give al-Qaida more room to operate.

On Saturday at least 35 civilians were injured as security forces confronted protesters at the university in the Red Sea port city of Hudaida, witnesses said. Dozens were suffering from the effects of teargas.

A civilian was shot dead on Friday as gunmen clashed with the army at security checkpoints around the flashpoint Abyan province, where al-Qaida militants are active.

Saleh has survived many tussles with rivals, skillfully using patronage and favors to keep tribal and political backers loyal.

Even before the wave of pro-democracy protests against his rule, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi'ite insurgency in the north.

Yemen, where half of its 23 million people own a gun, and already facing regional rebellions, has become a concern for regional stability among its Gulf neighbors, particularly oil giant Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States, which has seen Yemen as an ally against al-Qaida.