U.S. urges Yemen transition, no aid cut-off-Pentagon

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is urging a negotiated transition in Yemen “as quickly as possible” but so far has not cut off military aid seen as vital to the fight against al Qaeda, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, is clinging to power after weeks of mass demonstrations demanding an end to his 32-year rule.

More than 100 people have been killed since anti-government demonstrations began, in violence condemned by U.S. officials including Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.

“Obviously the situation right now is a difficult one. The longer it festers, the more difficult it becomes,” Morrell told reporters at the Pentagon.

“That is why this government has been urging a negotiated transition as quickly as possible.”

Morrell did not offer timeline or offer any details of what he meant by a transition in Yemen, however.

Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said they want Saleh to reach a deal with the opposition that would ultimately lead to him stepping down from power. They have stopped short of saying Washington wants his immediate ouster.

The crackdown on demonstrators has included the March 18 killings of 52 protesters by rooftop snipers in Sanaa.

That incident, which led Saleh to declare a state of emergency, prompted top Yemeni generals, ambassadors, and some tribes to back the protesters, in a major blow to the president.

Still, Morrell said that Saleh retained control over the military and stressed that Yemeni leadership remained committed to battling al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, has called AQAP the top threat to the United States.

The group has claimed responsibility for a failed Christmas Day attack in 2009 aboard a U.S. airliner and a more recent attempt last year to blow up two U.S.-bound cargo planes with toner cartridges packed with explosives.

Anti-American sentiment runs strong in Yemen and analysts warn a post-Saleh government in Yemen may not be as committed to the fight against AQAP.

“The bottom line is, despite what is taking place, the fact of life is Saleh remains the president of that country, he remains in control of its military forces,” Morrell said.

“I don’t think there’s been any diminution in the commitment of the Yemeni leadership to confront that threat. So we will continue to evaluate what makes the most sense for us in terms of support for the Yemeni government.”

Asked whether Washington had suspended military aid to Yemen, given the instability, Morrell said: “As far as I know it (U.S. military aid to Yemen) has not been.”

“Obviously we are monitoring the situation closely. It’s fluid. And we are making determinations and evaluations based upon how it’s developing,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Laura MacInnis)

U.S. urges Yemen transition, no aid cut-off-Pentagon