Yemeni army tightens hold on southern city of Zinjibar

GCC continues to work on power transfer agreement with President Saleh as 280 people are killed in fighting to lift the Zinjibar siege.

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ADEN // Yemeni troops killed four militants yesterday as the army consolidated its grip on Zinjibar, a day after recapturing the southern city from the Ansar Al Sharia group, a military spokesman said.

In Sanaa, the defence minister said 280 people were killed in fighting to lift the Zinjibar siege.

"The southern military region lost more than 230 martyrs in the fighting" to lift the siege of the 25th Mechanised Brigade's base in Zinjibar, the state news agency Saba quoted General Mohammed Nasser Ahmed as saying.

The casualties included dozens of soldiers from outside the ranks of the 25th Mechanised Brigade who were killed or wounded in the battle.

Separately, a ruling party official said the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was expected to empower his deputy to negotiate a Gulf-sponsored plan for the transfer of power, but that he would not give up his state powers immediately.

Residents said a Yemeni air strike killed at least three fighters near the militant-held town of Jaar, apparently as they were fleeing towards it from Zinjibar.

Opponents of Mr Saleh, who is recuperating in Saudi Arabia from a bomb attack on his Sanaa palace in June, have accused him of exaggerating the Al Qaeda threat or even manipulating militants as a ploy to scare Washington and Riyadh into backing him.

"This evening President Saleh will issue a decision giving his deputy the power to negotiate with the opposition about ... the Gulf power transfer initiative, but he will keep his other powers," said Sultan Barakani, the assistant secretary general of the ruling party.

The GCC was holding a meeting in Jeddah yesterday about Yemen's political crisis. The party had proposed changes to the transfer deal to give Saleh 90 days instead of 30 to leave power once he signs it.

The opposition has been wary that Saleh would again reject the plan. He had backed out of signing it at the last minute three times.

The deal would have him transfer his powers to his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

After Mr Saleh leaves, elections would be held and the opposition would form an interim government for a two-year transition period with Mr Hadi as interim president.

The government would use the time to draft a constitution and hold a dialogue with insurgent groups such as Shiite rebels in the north and southern separatists.

Zinjibar, lying east of a shipping strait through which some 3 million barrels of oil pass daily, has been devastated by fighting and air strikes. The four militants were killed during an army sweep of the Al Masaymeer and Al Khamla districts of the city.

Tens of thousands of Zinjibar residents fled to Aden after their city became a battle zone and the government lost control.

* Reuters with AFP