MOSCOW (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday he was concerned about instability in Yemen and its impact on the fight against terrorism but declined to say whether Yemen's leader should step down immediately.
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda, is facing unrelenting anti-government protests and fresh defections among the ruling elite that are adding to pressure for him to resign after 32 years in power.
Asked whether the United States still supported Saleh or if it was time for him to go, Gates said: "I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen."
"We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen," Gates said during a trip to Russia.
He added that the United States considered al Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) perhaps its most dangerous affiliate.
"And so instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is my primary concern about the situation," he said.
Western countries fear the political crisis could hasten Yemen's slide into failed nation status, a potential windfall for AQAP which has already used Yemen to attempt attacks in Saudi Arabia and the United States in the past two years.
Several generals and officials have abandoned Saleh this week after a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators on Friday, as one of the most violent of the uprisings that have swept the Arab world has pushed his administration to breaking point.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart)