By Cynthia Johnston and Mohammed Ghobari
SANAA (Reuters) - A deal on a peaceful transition of power in Yemen could come as early as Saturday and would be based on an offer by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down by year-end, Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said.
Yemen, a poor and tribally divided country that has become a base for al Qaeda, has been in turmoil since January when the example of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions set off popular demonstrations to end Saleh's 32-year authoritarian rule.
"I hope it will be today, before tomorrow," Qirbi, who is serving as caretaker foreign minister, told Reuters in an interview, adding that the time frame of a transfer of power by Saleh could be negotiated.
Saleh, who oversaw the 1990 unification of north and south Yemen and emerged victorious from a civil war four years later, told tribes in Sanaa on Saturday that he would "work to avoid bloodshed using all possible means."
He said on Friday he was ready to relinquish power to forestall more bloodshed but only to what he called "safe hands" after weeks of street demonstrations demanding his departure.
"President Saleh is willing to look at all possibilities, as long as there are really serious commitments by the JMP (opposition) to come and initiate a serious dialogue between them and the ruling party," Qirbi said.
Talks have been under way on two tracks to hash out the details of a deal on a peaceful transition of power in the Arabian Peninsula state that is home to a resurgent arm of al Qaeda, Yemeni political sources have said.
Qirbi said Yemen's main opposition party would be holding talks with the ruling party on Saturday. Discussions were centering on the time frame of a transition, among other issues.
"I think the time period is something that can be negotiated. It shouldn't be really an obstacle to reach an agreement," he said.
"I think things are very close if the real intention is really to reach an agreement. But if there are parties who want to obstruct it then of course one cannot predict."
Saleh has responded to the mass protests with a violent crackdown and a string of concessions, all rebuffed by opposition parties, including one this week to transfer power after the drafting of a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections by the end of the year.
Western countries worry that al Qaeda militants could take advantage of any power vacuum arising from a rocky transition if Saleh, a linchpin U.S. and Saudi ally fighting for his political life, finally steps down after 32 years in office.
More than 80 people have been killed since anti-government protests started in January to demand the departure of Saleh, a serial political survivor of civil war, separatist movements in the north and south of Yemen and militant attacks.
The protests turned bloody last Friday when plainclothes snipers loyal to Saleh fired into an anti-government crowd, killing 52 people.
That led to a string of defections that badly eroded Saleh's position including by top military commanders such as General Ali Mohsen, as well as ambassadors, lawmakers, provincial governors and tribal leaders, some from his own tribe.
Yemeni political sources said talks to resolve the crisis have been taking place with help from Western mediators. They included a meeting between the president and Mohsen in which they discussed the future of both men.
A source close to Mohsen, who has thrown his weight behind protesters, said he and Saleh had weighed a deal in which both would leave the country, taking their sons and relatives with them to pave the way for a civilian transitional government.
Washington and Riyadh, Yemen's main financial backer, have long seen Saleh as a bulwark against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has tried to stage attacks beyond Yemeni soil since 2009 in both Saudi Arabia and United States.
Yemen lies on key shipping routes and borders Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil exporter. It has often seemed to be on the brink of disintegration: northern Shi'ites often take up arms against Saleh and southerners dream of a separate state.
Saleh has been in power since 1978 but his authority has been challenged by southern separatists, northern rebels, al-Qaeda militants and mass protest calling for his resignation.
With no clear successor to Saleh in sight and conflicts wracking north and south Yemen, the country of 23 million faces the risk of a breakup, in addition to poverty, a water shortage and dwindling oil reserves.
(Reporting by Cynthia Johnston; Writing by Samia Nakhoul; Editing by Mark Heinrich)