Obama, upping pressure on Yemen, sends aide to region

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama has dispatched a top aide to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the deteriorating situation in Yemen, the White House said Wednesday.

“We strongly condemn the recent clashes in Sanaa and the deplorable use of violence by the government against peaceful demonstrators in Taiz,” the White House said, announcing the visit of Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan.

U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained by unrest sweeping the Arab world, which saw Washington ditch long-standing allies, including Egypt’s autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak, in order to side with pro-democracy demonstrators.

In Yemen, both are pushing for a transfer of power amid escalating violence that could spread instability in a region strategically vital for global oil supplies.

Yemeni government troops gunned down protesters in the southern town of Taiz during violence this week in which at least 19 people died, while world powers continued to press President Ali Abdullah Saleh to end his three-decade rule.

“These tragic events underscore the need for President Saleh to sign the GCC-brokered transition proposal and to begin the transfer of power immediately,” the White House said.

The Gulf Cooperation Council has so far failed to broker Saleh’s departure but the White House urged it keep trying.

“That is the best way to avoid further bloodshed and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace, reform and prosperity,” the White House said in a statement.

Brennan began his trip in Sudan, where violence between North Sudan and the south has flared over the contested oil-rich Abyei border region, ahead of the south’s planned succession from the north in July.

He met Sudanese officials in Khartoum Wednesday to stress Obama’s “deep concern” about the situation in Abyei, which was seized by northern forces on May 21, and also to discuss a review of Sudan’s inclusion in the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism and cooperation against al Qaeda.

Tens of thousands have fled the fighting around Abyei, which has sparked international fear that the two sides could return to full-scale civil war.

Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, the administration’s top diplomat for Africa, said Brennan would be conveying a warning that Khartoum’s behavior in Abyei may complicate the situation.

“They have to meet the legislative requirements for being taken off” of the list, Carson told reporters at a news briefing. “But there is no doubt that the events of the last several weeks do undermine people’s confidence in the commitment to follow through on the roadmap that was laid out some months ago.”

(Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Bill Trott)