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U.S. trying to help Yemeni president leave, officials say

From Jill Dougherty, Elise Labott and Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Senior White House official: "It seems that he's digging in"
  • When President Ali Abdullah Saleh will go is crucial question, Yemeni officials say
  • U.S. warns Saleh about escalating violence, not meeting opposition demands
  • Continuity in fighting active al Qaeda groups in Yemen is a U.S. concern

Washington (CNN) -- The U.S. is helping to mediate a transition out of office for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and say a departure date for the president is one issue that is being discussed, two Yemeni officials tell CNN.

The timing is delicate, officials say, because they want to avoid any steps that could further destabilize Yemen or interrupt counterterrorism efforts in a country that U.S. officials believe is home to some of the most active al Qaeda operatives in the world.

The White House has signaled disenchantment with the process.

"There is a sense of urgency" about establishing a timeline for Saleh to step down and "now it seems that he's digging in," a senior Obama administration official told CNN Monday.

This official confirmed that U.S. has been working behind the scenes, trying to see what the best way forward is.

"Whatever timeline they develop, we can accept -- but it needs to be worked out. That's the problem that's making people anxious," he said. "There has to be a path forward, it can't be a situation where he thinks that, week to week, he can sort of continue to hold on without making some kind of accommodation."

With new reports that at least 14 people have been killed by government security forces in Yemen, U.S. officials continue to warn that unless Saleh takes concrete steps to meet opposition demands, the country is headed for more violence, potentially undermining efforts to fight al Qaeda.

"President Saleh has publicly indicated his willingness to engage in a peaceful transition of power. And we believe the timing and form of that transition should be accomplished through dialogue and negotiation," White House spokesman Jay Carney said earlier Monday. "Our position with regards to working with the government of Yemen on counterterrorism efforts is that it is not and has not been focused on one person, nor should it be."

Yemen's president offered to step down by the end of the year, after constitutional reforms and new elections, but the opposition, led by the Joint Meeting Parties bloc, is demanding he leave immediately. A plan unveiled by the bloc Saturday called for Saleh to hand over all authority to Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi in the interim. But Saleh is not offering any further concessions and protests by the opposition continue.

U.S. officials says various groups, including al Qaeda and secessionist elements, are exploiting the political turbulence and splits within the military and security services for their own gain.

The rapidly deteriorating situation presents a major problem for the Obama administration.

Saleh has been in power since 1978 and has been a staunch U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Saleh argues he should remain in office because he is the only one who can effectively continue that fight against terrorism.

The senior administration official who spoke to CNN says the problem in Yemen can be typical of leaders who are being forced to step down. Some of them can find a "graceful way" of leaving office, he says, allowing for a peaceful transition, "or do they wait too long and too late and then you create a situation which is fraught with chaos and conflict?"

When asked if the U.S. has doubt that Saleh will step down, the official said not necessarily, but "the thing with all these leaders is: Until they do -- do you know for sure that they will?"