SANAA, Yemen – Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said Thursday his loyalists should maintain leading roles in running the country's affairs to ensure stability, in a clear warning against attempts by his successor to purge them.
The opposition has accused Saleh, who stepped down in February as part of a power transfer deal negotiated by Gulf countries and backed by the U.S., of trying undermine his successor, former Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in a bid to return to office.
"Yemen will not see stability without an effective role for the leadership and the bases of the General People's Congress party," Saleh said in a statement, referring to his ruling party.
Saleh was the fourth Arab leader to step aside in the wave of revolts that have swept across the Mideast over the past year. After months of mass protests demanding his ouster. But the Gulf-brokered deal that ushered Saleh out of office allowed him to stay on as the head of his party and keep half of the Cabinet ministers in place. It also did not stipulate that the former president must leave the country, and Saleh said he would use his presence to continue to lead the ruling party, to which Hadi also belongs.
"We have always said if this man remains in the country, it will be a big problem," said Mohammed al-Sabri, an opposition spokesman. "The other problem is the international mediators who pressed the opposition to offer him immunity. They have a moral responsibility."
The agreement granted Saleh immunity from prosecution for the killing of protesters in exchange for leaving office.
In his more than 30 years in power, Saleh stacked key security and government posts with relatives and cronies, and one of Hadi's biggest challenges is weeding them out as part of urgently needed reforms.
Hadi has moved in that direction, and last week sacked several generals and other former regime figures as part of reforms in the country's security services. In response, outraged Saleh loyalists seized the capital's main airport, disrupting flights for a day.
Among those fired were Saleh's half brother, air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, and his nephew, Tariq, who headed the presidential guard. Both so far have refused to step aside.
The restructuring didn't touch the ex-president's son Ahmed, who has retained kept command of the well-equipped and powerful Republican Guard, or Saleh's nephew, Yahia, the head of the Central Security Forces. The show of force appeared to be an attempt to intimidate Hadi and dissuade him from trying to implement more sweeping reforms that would remove them and other family members.
Both men deployed forces to help with the airport siege, according to military officials. On Thursday, Hadi fired a senior military police officer who was in charge of airport security.
Two officials from the government and ruling party said Saleh had sent envoys to Hadi asking him not to make such purges without consulting with him first. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity their names be withheld because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Another looming challenge for Hadi as he settles into the presidency is an increasingly active al-Qaida linked militants who have used Yemen's political turmoil to seize control of swaths of territory in the country's lawless south.
On Thursday, a Yemeni tribal field commander said al-Qaida-linked fighters have attacked a town in the country's south, sparking clashes that have killed at least three people.
Khaled al-Fayadi said the militants ambushed tribal fighters in the town of Moudia, located just 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the town of Lawder, where government troops have been battling al-Qaida fighters for three days in fighting that has killed at least 165 people.
Al-Fayadi said the tribesmen repulsed the attack and pushed the militants back into the mountains.
Local officials in the nearby town of Jaar said eight militants killed in Lawder Thursday were buried in their town. The eight included three Egyptians, two Afghans and a Somali. They were killed in clashes with local militia that has backed government troops.