The powerful son of Yemen's embattled leader voiced support Sunday for efforts spearheaded by the opposition and the acting president to find a solution to the nation's political turmoil.
Ahmed Saleh, the son of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and commander of the elite Republican Guards, has played a key role in protecting his father's government in the face of four months of mass anti-government protests calling for the regime's ouster.
In a statement issued Sunday by his office, Ahmed "expressed his support" for attempts led by Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and opposition leaders to "reach a solution to the current crisis."
The comments appeared to mark a turnabout for the president's son, who has played the role of chief guarantor of his family's grip on power since his father left for Saudi Arabia early this month to receive treatment for wounds he suffered in an attack on his palace.
Officials said that the son has come under intense pressure from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to pull back his forces from the streets and pave the way for a transfer of power. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Both Riyadh and Washington are eager to see a peaceful resolution to Yemen's political strife, which threatens to devolve into civil war. Government troops, with the Republican Guards at the fore, battled tribal fighters opposed to Saleh in Yemen's streets last month and early this month before a tentative ceasefire was reached.
Yemen's opposition welcomed Ahmed Saleh's remarks, but said they must translate into action on the ground.
"The president's son is taking an advanced step but still it is only on paper," said activist Abdullah Oubal. "What is more important is to implement it."
With President Saleh in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied across Yemen on Sunday to demand that Ahmed and his brother Khaled, who also commands a military unit, as well as other senior members of the regime leave the country.
In capital Sanaa, and other cities including Ibb and Taiz, protesters chanted slogans calling for Saleh to step down and his family to depart. Some demonstrators shouted: "Saleh's orphans have to leave the country."
Yemen's political crisis began in February with protests by largely peaceful crowds calling for Saleh's ouster after nearly 33 years in power. A crackdown has killed at least 167 people, according to Human Rights Watch.
Saleh has three times retracted from signing a deal put forward by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council that calls for him to step down and hand power to his vice president. In return, Saleh would get immunity from any prosecution.
For the U.S. and Europe, the main concern is the political strife could open space for al-Qaida's Yemeni offshoot to operate. The group, which has found refuge in Yemen's mountainous hinterlands, has been behind several nearly successful strikes on U.S. targets.
The militants seized a provincial capital and now are operating openly in the lawless south, training with live ammunition and controlling roads with checkpoints.
Washington considered Saleh an essential partner in battling al-Qaida and had given his government millions of dollars in military aid, but has been pressing for him to step down to spare the country further bloodshed.