By Samia Nakhoul
(Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who escaped an attempt on his life by opponents, will only cede power through the ballot box and the country will descend into civil war if he is forced from office, his foreign minister said.
A popular uprising against Saleh's 33-year rule, high profile defections, and an assassination attempt in June which left him with severe burns and forced him to undergo eight operations have all failed to persuade him to give up.
"President Saleh made this very clear. He repeatedly said he is ready to transfer power anytime, but through early elections, through the ballot box and by adhering to the constitution," Abubakr al-Qirbi told Reuters in an interview.
"Now the issue is for the ruling party and the opposition parties to agree on a date for early elections," he said.
Saleh, 70, has brought relative stability and unity to the impoverished tribal state, which is awash with weaponry and corruption and beset by separatism in the south, a Shi'ite uprising in the north and a growing al Qaeda presence.
When he first became North Yemen's president in 1978, Yemen had suffered two decades of civil war and violence, and the two presidents who preceded him had both been assassinated.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by a wing of al Qaeda based in Yemen, have been involved in talks to end the crisis and avert a spread of anarchy that could give the global jihadist network more room to operate.
Qirbi said the timetable set for a transfer of power under a deal, brokered by Gulf states and Washington, was not realistic.
Under the agreement, Saleh and the opposition have 30 days to form a national unity government after which Saleh would resign and elections would follow 60 days later.
"This time schedule has proven to be difficult to implement ... Elections cannot take place in 60 days. Therefore, if President Saleh resigns after 30 days and no election can take place in 60 days we will run into a constitutional vacuum in the country," Qirbi said.
"The president is not scrapping the agreement. It is just the timetable for the implementation that need to be readdressed," he said.
The GCC mediated three deals with Yemeni opposition parties under which Saleh would step down and be spared prosecution for bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets, emboldened by Egyptians and Tunisians who ousted their autocratic leaders.
Each time, Saleh backed out at the last minute.
Qirbi said his government was trying to start a dialogue with the opposition to agree on "a feasible and practical election date" under the supervision of international and regional observers.
He said six months of street fighting and political protests had cost the economy as much as $5 billion, scared away tourists and investors, and swollen budget deficits.
Some of Yemen's biggest losses are related to fuel in a country that relies on oil for 60 percent of its income. He said Yemen has had to import gasoline and diesel, at a high cost.
Damaged pipelines have also cut off an important source of income for the world's 32nd largest oil exporter and 16th biggest seller of liquefied natural gas.
"We had about three to four months stoppage of our oil exportation because of attacks on pipelines. As result we had to import a lot of gasoline and diesel."
"We are in a very difficult situation. We are trying to get out of it. The solution has to be a political and it has to be a Yemeni solution. Now we have to save the future of our country.
Even before the uprising, Yemen was in deep trouble. The government, reliant on foreign aid and dwindling oil revenue, was running out of cash.
Four out of 10 of the population live on less than $2 a day. Two thirds of Yemen's fast-growing population of 23 million people are under 24. Unemployment stands at around 40 percent.
The turmoil has also renewed fears Yemen could become a failed state on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, which holds the world's biggest oil reserves.
Rivaling Pakistan and Afghanistan as an incubator and shelter for al Qaeda, Yemen shows signs of becoming a serious international threat.
Qirbi said al Qaeda was the main beneficiary from the chaos convulsing the country. It has mobilized its militants and tried to take control of the southern Abyan province, he added.
"The political crisis creates the right atmosphere for extremists and for al Qaeda to take advantage of," he added.
Qirbi said failing to reach a political agreement would be disastrous.
"There are many scenarios as to what will happen. The worst case scenario unfortunately maybe civil war, maybe fragmentation of the country," he said.
"I think the majority of people neither want civil war nor to see Yemen divided again, but this will depend really on wisdom prevailing amongst policymakers on both sides -- on the government side and the opposition side."
(Created by Samia Nakhoul)