DUBAI (Reuters) – Yemen’s foreign minister said a planned February 21 presidential election may have to be delayed, an announcement that will raise fears for a U.N.-backed transition plan designed to end months of unrest in the impoverished country.
The comments – the first suggestion that the vote might be held up – will likely anger activists and opposition groups keen to see a quick transfer of power after months of unrest.
The February election was part of a deal brokered by Gulf countries and supported by Washington and Riyadh to ease Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power after nearly a year of protests against his 33-year rule.
“I am among those who hope that the issue (the presidential election) will take place in the planned manner,” Abubakr al-Qirbi said in an interview on Al Arabiya TV broadcast on Tuesday.
“But 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 February 21.”
Yemen’s anti-Saleh protests were largely inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ protests that have already toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Washington, and Yemen’s neighbor Saudi Arabia, fear al Qaeda, which already has a strong branch in the country, will be able to exploit further unrest.
Yemen is close to key oil and cargo shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
Saleh has repeatedly promised to hand over power or cooperate with international plans, but has appeared to go back on those pledges a number of times, leaving opponents frustrated.
Under the plan, the opposition and Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) have split seats in government. They promised to prepare for the vote and oversee the separation of pro-Saleh forces, rebel army units and tribal militias which have fought in the capital Sanaa and elsewhere.
Any successor to Saleh will face multiple conflicts in the impoverished Arabian peninsula country, including rising separatist sentiment in the south, where an Islamist insurgency has also seized chunks of territory.
On Sunday, fighters whom local officials said belonged to Yemen’s al Qaeda wing seized the town of Radda about 170 km (105 miles) southeast of the capital. Islamist fighters have already taken control of parts of the southern Abyan province.