Yemeni Islamist fighters who seized a small town southeast of the capital Sanaa this week have said they will withdraw if several comrades are released from jail, tribal sources said on Wednesday.
Yemeni tribesmen negotiating with the militants on behalf of the government said Tareq al-Dahab, leader of the group that took over Radda, about 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Sanaa, agreed to go if his brother Nabil and several others were freed.
Dahab is related to Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen whom Washington accused of a leadership role in the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda, and assassinated in a drone strike last year.
Radda’s capture underscored U.S. fears that political upheaval in Yemen over the fate of President Ali Abdullah Saleh will give al Qaeda a foothold near shipping routes through the Red Sea and may spread to world No. 1 oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
Saleh formally handed over power to his deputy late last year, in line with a Gulf-brokered plan to end months of mass protests and bursts of open combat between his forces and those of a rebel general and tribal militias.
Under the deal hammered out by Yemen’s wealthy neighbors, Saleh’s General People’s Congress and opposition parties divided up cabinet posts between them, forming a unity government to steer the country towards presidential elections in February.
Saleh’s opponents accuse him of ceding territory to Islamists to bolster his assertion that his rule alone keeps al Qaeda from growing stronger in Yemen, and ultimately aiming to retain power by sabotaging the transition deal.
A spokesman for Yemen’s acting leader, Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, dismissed comments by the foreign minister, who suggested a day earlier that elections may be delayed due to deteriorating security.
“There is no scope for delaying the … election because it will be conducted under the supervision of the international community,” said Yehia al-Arasi.
Washington, which long backed Saleh as key to its “counter-terrorism” policy, endorses the transition plan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that Saleh was failing to meet his pledges under the deal and that Washington was “focused on the threat posed by al Qaeda in Yemen.”