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Battles rage in al Qaeda-held Yemen town, 25 dead


SANAA/ADEN, June 7 (Reuters): Fighting flared on Tuesday in a southern Yemen city seized by Islamist militants, killing at least 25 people, a local official said, after Washington urged President Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power peacefully. Saleh left for Saudi Arabia at the weekend for surgery on wounds suffered in an attack on his palace in Sanaa -- an absence that could be an opportunity to ease him out of office after nearly 33 years ruling the impoverished Arab nation.
Global powers worry that chaos would make it easier for the Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda to operate and would multiply risks for neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil producers. "We are calling for a peaceful and orderly transition," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday, adding that this would be in the best interests of the Yemeni people.
Yemen's acting leader, Vice President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, said Saleh would return within days, but the position of Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally played an influential role in Yemeni politics, could now be decisive. Saudi officials say it is up to Saleh whether he returns home or not, but they, and Western powers, may want to revive a Gulf-brokered transition deal under which the Yemeni leader would have quit in return for immunity from prosecution. "Saleh's departure is probably permanent," said Robert Powell, Yemen analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
"The Saudis, as well as the U.S. and European Union, are pushing hard for him to stay in Saudi Arabia, as they view the prospect of his return as a catastrophe. "Prior to his departure, the country was slipping inexorably into a civil war. However, his removal has suddenly opened a diplomatic window to restart the seemingly failed GCC-mediated proposal. It seems Saudi Arabia and other interested parties are unwilling to allow Saleh to derail it this time."
Saudi Arabia is particularly worried by the activities of the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which staged daring but abortive attacks on Saudi and U.S. targets.
About 10 days ago, AQAP and other militants seized the southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar, which is near a shipping lane through which about 3 million barrels of oil pass daily. Locals and Yemeni troops have stepped up fighting to retake Zinjibar and a local official said 25 people -- 15 soldiers and 10 armed militants -- had been killed in recent battles. More casualties are expected in the city, once home to more than 50,000 people, but now mostly a ghost town without power and running water due to the street fighting.
Fighting also flared again in the city of Taiz, south of Sanaa, where anti-government gunmen have clashed sporadically with troops in the past few days. A Saudi-brokered truce was holding in the capital after two weeks of fighting between Saleh's forces and tribesmen in which over 200 people were killed and thousands forced to flee.