The US government is trying to ratchet up pressure on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to reach a deal with the opposition that would ultimately lead to his handing over power, US officials said on Monday.
A partner in US efforts to combat the militant group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Saleh is the latest Arab leader to face a groundswell of popular demonstrations seeking to end his 32-year rule in the impoverished country.
The violence in Yemen has picked up in recent days. Police and armed men in civilian clothes opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in the Yemeni cities of Taiz and Hudaida on Monday, witnesses said.
In Taiz, south of the capital, Sanaa, police shot at protesters trying to storm the provincial government building, killing at least 15 and wounding 30, hospital doctors said.
In the Red Sea port of Hudaida, police and armed men in civilian clothes attacked a march toward a presidential palace. Three people were hit by bullets, around 30 stabbed with knives, and 270 hurt by inhaling tear gas, doctors said.
The US officials, who spoke on condition that they not be identified, said that the violence - described by the State Department as “appalling” - showed that some kind of a political solution is imperative.
The New York Times reported late on Sunday that Washington had “quietly shifted positions” and concluded Saleh was “unlikely to bring about the required reforms and must be eased out of office.”
Asked whether the United States believed Saleh should step down, a State Department spokesman told reporters: “That’s not necessarily a decision for us to make.”
US officials suggested the story was overblown and stopped short of saying Washington wanted Saleh’s immediate ouster. But they made clear the United States wants him to embrace a transition that would eventually lead to his departure.
“It looks increasingly like he needs to step aside,” one US official said, saying the United States was trying to “turn up the heat” on Saleh to come to terms with the opposition, which is demanding his departure.
The officials pointed to carefully calibrated and vetted comments by an unnamed Obama administration official last week as evidence of the effort to pressure Saleh.
In those comments the official said the standoff between Saleh and the protesters was hurting security throughout the country - hinting at a central US fear, that al Qaeda militants could acquire more scope to use Yemen as a base.
“Groups of various stripes - al-Qaeda, Houthis, tribal elements, and secessionists - are exploiting the current political turbulence and emerging fissures within the military and security services for their own gain,” the official said.
“Until President Saleh is able to resolve the current political impasse by announcing how and when he will follow through on his earlier commitment to take tangible steps to meet opposition demands, the security situation in Yemen is at risk of further deterioration,” he added.
Nearly 100 people have been killed since anti-government protests began in Yemen, including the March 18 killings of 52 anti-government 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 support anti-government protesters in a major blow to the president.
Despite having floated the possibility of stepping down, Saleh has yet to come to any hard agreement with the opposition. In comments over the weekend, he appeared to be digging in, saying that he would defend Yemen with “blood and soul.”
“Fundamentally, he needs to satisfy the opposition,” said a State Department official who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be identified, adding that if “that means leaving, then that means leaving.”