- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2011

SANAA, Yemen | Islamic militants seized control of a weapons factory, a strategic mountain and a nearby town in the southern Yemen province of Abyan on Sunday, said a witness and security officials, 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 long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who refuses to step down.

Mr. Saleh’s fate is of deep concern to the U.S. 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 defense.

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

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

Residents in the nearby town of Jaar, which was seized by the militants Saturday, 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 in the central Marib province, another province where the militant group is active and under only nominal government control.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media, said the attackers set fire to a pickup truck mounted with machine gun and made off with an armored vehicle belonged to the post.

Al Qaeda has seized control of towns in southern Yemen before, but in the past it 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 now, demanding his ouster, inspired by the wave of people power sweeping the Middle East.

After Saleh forces opened fire on demonstrators last week, killing more than 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.

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