By Cynthia Johnston
SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ruling party will meet for crisis talks on Sunday after Saleh said he was ready to hand over power on condition he be allowed to leave with dignity.
Saleh, who is under pressure from tens of thousands of Yemenis gathered in the streets demanding his departure after 32 years in power, is expected to attend and update senior party members on his talks with the opposition.
Late on Saturday, Saleh said he was prepared to step down within hours. But a deal did not appear imminent since the opposition had hardened their demands.
"I could leave power ... even in a few hours, on condition of maintaining respect and prestige," Saleh said in a televised interview. "I have to take the country to safe shores ... I'm holding on to power in order to hand it over peaceably."
Yet Saleh also appeared to warn against any sudden transition by saying Yemen could slide into a civil war and fragment along regional and tribal lines .
"Yemen is a time bomb and if we and our friendly countries don't have a return to dialogue, there will be a destructive civil war," he said.
Saleh has been an ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia by keeping at bay a Yemen-based resurgent wing of Al Qaeda in a country that is close to collapse, with rebels in the north, secessionists in the south and grinding poverty everywhere.
More than 80 people have been killed since protests started in January, inspired by popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, to demand the departure of Saleh, a serial political survivor of civil war as well as separatist, rebel and militant attacks.
On Sunday, Al Arabiya television said six soldiers were killed in an ambush by Al Qaeda militants in the south of the country.
Opposition parties have been talking with Saleh about a transition but have so far rebuffed any of his concessions.
"We still have a very big gap," said Yassin Noman, the rotating head of Yemen's opposition coalition. "I think he is maneuvering."
Western countries are concerned that Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could take advantage of any power vacuum arising from a rocky transition if Saleh steps down.
AQAP claimed responsibility for the foiled attempt in late 2009 to blow up a jetliner bound for Detroit and for U.S.-bound cargo bombs sent in October 2010.
The concessions offered by Saleh have included a promise to step down in 2013 when his term ends, and most recently his proposal to transfer power after the drafting of a new constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections by the end of the year.
The tide appeared to turn against Saleh after March 18 when plainclothes snipers loyal to the president fired into an anti-government crowd, killing 52 people.
The violence led to defections including military commanders such as General Ali Mohsen, ambassadors, lawmakers, provincial governors and tribal leaders, some from his own tribe.
Saleh said the defections were mainly by Islamists and that some had returned to his side. He said Mohsen had been acting emotionally because of Friday's bloodshed but that security forces were not behind the deaths.
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.
"I'm not looking for a home in Jeddah or Paris," Saleh said on Saturday, vowing to stay in Yemen.
Yemen, a country of 23 million with an acute water shortage and dwindling oil reserves, is widely viewed a the next country in the region to see a change in leadership.
A revolt in Bahrain has been quieted by an army show of force on the streets after a state of emergency was declared. Syria has erupted with protests in recent days.
(Reporting by Cynthia Johnston; Writing by Reed Stevenson; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)