Islamic militants seized control of a weapons factory, a strategic mountain and a nearby town in the southern Yemen province of Abyan yesterday as a political stalemate in the capital causes security to unravel around the country.

The fragile nation has been rocked by weeks of mass protests against the long-serving president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who refuses to step down.

Mr Saleh’s fate is of deep concern to the US as he is a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda, but with his attention on massive anti-government protests in the capital, security has declined in the provinces.

Residents of the southern Abyan province said police reduced their presence in towns weeks ago. Elsewhere, residents have pushed out police and soldiers and set up their own local militias for self defence.

In the areas they took over, the militants set up checkpoints around the small factory and in the town of al-Husn, patrolling the streets and searching cars.

They also seized control of a nearby Khanfar mountain that holds a radio station and a presidential guest house, said Ali Dahmash, an expert on Islamic militant groups who lives nearby.

Residents in the nearby town of Jaar, which was seized by the militants yesterday, said they heard gunfire, but the scope of the battle wasn’t immediately clear.

The area lies close to the southern port town of Aden.

In another province of Yemen, security officials say suspected al Qaeda gunmen killed seven soldiers and wounded seven others in an attack on a military post. The attack took place at Ubaida area in the central Marib province, another province where the militant group is active and only under nominal government control.

Al Qaeda has seized control of towns in southern Yemen before, but in the past was vigorously confronted by security forces loyal to Mr Saleh.

The instability highlights the unraveling security situation throughout Yemen as a stalemate ensues between the country’s president of 32 years and hundreds of thousands of citizens who want him to leave power.

They have camped in cities and towns for weeks, demanding his removal, inspired by the wave of people power sweeping the Middle East. After forces to Mr Saleh opened fire on demonstrators last week, killing over 40, the protesters’ ranks were bolstered by a series of high-level officials from the country’s military, diplomatic corps and civil servants, including the president’s former chief adviser, Ali Mohsen.

But Mr Saleh refuses to step down immediately, saying it would draw the country into a long civil war. He has offered to resign at the end of the year after setting new elections.

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