Yemen's presidential election set for February may be delayed by security concerns, its foreign minister said, raising the prospect that a US and UN-backed plan to end months of unrest by easing the president from office may collapse.
The comments - the first suggestion the vote might be postponed - came after fighters seized an entire city, underscoring US and Saudi fears that chaos born of political crisis may empower al Qaeda in Yemen, which sits alongside key oil and cargo shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
The vote is central to the plan crafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a bloc of Yemen's wealthy neighbours, to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power after nearly a year of protests against his 33-year rule.
"Unfortunately, there are a couple of events relating to security, and if they are not solved ... it will be difficult to run the elections on Feb. 21," Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi, a member of Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC) party, said in an interview shown on Al Arabiya TV on Tuesday.
The opposition coalition that shares power with the GPC in a government tasked with leading Yemen to a vote and ending fighting between Saleh's forces and those of a rebel general and tribal magnates swiftly rejected any delay.
"The statement makes clear the practices of President Saleh's regime, which aim to create chaos," said Ghalib al-Odainy, a spokesman for the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).
"These statements make it clear that the handover of Radda was with the complete approval of Saleh's regime," he said, referring to a town about 170 km (105 miles) southeast of the capital Sanaa which fighters took on Sunday.
"The goal is to put the country in chaos and then avoid the Gulf initiative and the presidential elections."
Saleh's camp denies the charges and accuses an Islamist party - once its partner in government - that is powerful in the JMP of being a front for al Qaeda.
Speaking at a news conference in the Ivory Coast capital Abidjan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern over al Qaeda's actvitivities in Yemen.
"We remain focused on the threat posed by al Qaeda in Yemen and will continue to work with our partners there and elsewhere to ensure that AQ does not gain a foothold in the Arabian peninsula through actions that would undermine the stability of Yemen and the region".