Islamist militants have taken control of the southern Yemeni coastal town of Shaqra, the third town to fall into their hands, tribal sources and residents said Wednesday.
The tribal sources said government forces had allowed the militants to seize the town with little resistance. The militants, which the government says have ties to al-Qaida, entered the town in cars from another city already under their control.
This new takeover came as Yemeni opposition groups and protest leaders formed a national council on Wednesday to step up pressure on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to relinquish power.
Mass protests calling on Saleh to step down have been roiling Yemen for months. In June, Saleh was badly wounded in an attack on his palace compound.
Rare show of unitySalem Mohammed Bassindwa, a top opposition figure, says youth groups and political parties named 143 council members to represent the people, a rare show of unity.
"This is a revolutionary council aimed at toppling the rule of the (Saleh) family and the remnants of this regime," Bassindwa said. He clarified that it is "not an alternative to the government."
The council members will elect a president and an executive body. It will also form "popular committees" in Yemeni cities, to be in charge of "protecting citizens' properties and state institutions" at time of crisis and street clashes, he said.
Saleh, Yemen's ruler for 33 years, has clung to power throughout the uprising despite mass protests, defections by military commanders, growing international pressure to transfer power and an attack on his palace that left him badly injured. He has been in neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment of severe burns and other wounds since June 5.
The United States and his Saudi hosts have pressuring on Saleh not to return to Yemen, fearing his return would likely trigger a civil war between loyalists and the opposition movement backed by armed tribesmen and army units that switched sides.
Even so, Saleh declared Tuesday that he is determined to go home. "See you soon in Sanaa," he told a tribal gathering in a video conference from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The position of the council on a U.S.-backed power transfer deal is not yet clear. The deal, proposed by an Arab Gulf grouping, gives Saleh immunity from prosecution if he transfers power to his deputy, who would then call elections. Saleh came close to signing several times but then backed away.
While the formal political parties and the main tribal federation backed the deal, youth movements and protest leaders rejected immunity for Saleh.
Before the announcement of formation of the new council, a rumor spread that thousands of protesters would march to the presidential palace in Sanaa, prompting the pro-Saleh Republican Guard force to deploy troops, tanks and armored vehicles in the streets of the capital, alarming residents and raising fears of a military confrontation.