SANAA // Al Qaeda militants have seized a town south-east of Sanaa in another setback to efforts to restore order in Yemen.
A police source and witnesses said the militants met little resistance from a small police force when they entered the town of Radda in Al Baydah province, 170 kilometres from Sanaa, on Saturday night, seizing an ancient citadel and mosque.
The capture of Radda expanded Al Qaeda control outside the southern province of Abyan, where they have taken over several towns since the uprising against outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh began.
Mr Saleh signed a deal brokered by Yemen's Gulf neighbours in November under which he shifted formal power to his deputy.
But he has not yet left the country and continues to wield power through relatives' control of security forces.
"I call again on President Saleh to abide by the terms of the agreement", UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in Beirut during a Middle East visit.
Mr Ban noted that a UN mediator had been "at the heart of negotiations" with Mr Saleh.
The anti-Saleh violence has emboldened groups linked to Al Qaeda's Yemen-based regional wing. The US and Saudi Arabia are keen for the Gulf-backed power transfer to work, fearing that a vacuum in Yemen may give Al Qaeda space to thrive near key oil and cargo shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
Underscoring the continued lawlessness in Yemen, a Norwegian working for the UN was kidnapped in Sanaa at the weekend, Norway's foreign ministry said. A tribal source said the Norwegian was abducted by tribesmen from Marib province demanding the release of a suspect accused of killing two members of the security forces.
Residents in Radda, which has a population of 60,000, said the militants who took over the town were led by Tareq Al Dahab, who had been handed over by Syria to Yemen recently after being detained while trying to slip into Iraq.
Dahab is a brother-in-law of the late US-born Muslim cleric linked to Al Qaeda who was killed in an air strike last year in Yemen.
Yahia Abu Usba, deputy head of the Yemeni Socialist Party and a Saleh critic, said security forces appeared to have done little to prevent militants entering Radda. He said Al Qaeda would target Marib Province next.
Yemeni officials were not immediately available for comment.
The US and Saudi Arabia backed Mr Saleh through much of his autocratic 33-year rule, fearing that any vacuum would be exploited by Al Qaeda fighters in the Arabian Peninsula.
As street protests intensified against Mr Saleh, however, US and Saudi officials endorsed the Gulf-brokered deal for Mr Saleh to step down.
Under the plan, the opposition and the ruling General People's Congress party shared cabinet posts, forming a unity government to steer the country towards presidential elections in February.
In Sanaa on Saturday, a 48-hour deadline given to armed opponents and supporters of Mr Saleh to withdraw after months of street fighting passed but there was little change in the armed face-off, according to residents.
Fighting against Islamist militants in the south has continued, forcing about 97,000 people to flee. More than 300,000 others have been displaced by tribal rebellion in north Yemen, according to UN estimates.