Yemen's military has sent extra forces to a town seized by militant Islamists last week, after negotiations with the group's leader broke down, residents and witnesses said Monday.
Tanks and armoured vehicles were making their way towards Radda, about 170 km southeast of the capital Sanaa, a day after outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh left Yemen to seek medical treatment in the United States.
Neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia and the United States—which long backed President Saleh as a key to its "counterterrorism" policy—fear political paralysis over Saleh's fate could embolden Al-Qaeda in the country.
They support Saleh’s easing out of office after 33 years in power with immunity from prosecution over the deaths of protesters in a year-long uprising against him.
This has been punctuated by bursts of open combat between Saleh's troops and those of a rebel general and tribal militiamen, allowing militants to exploit weak government control to grab territory, notably in the southern province of Abyan.
Islamist militants entered Radda a week ago led by Tareq al-Dahab, a relative of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, whom Washington accused of playing a leading role in the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda, and assassinated in a drone strike last year. Witnesses said the military had sent heavy armour to the town on Monday.
"As we were leaving Radda we saw 15 tanks and more than 20 armoured vehicles heading for one of the military bases on the west side of town," said one witness called Abdallah. Another said soldiers at checkpoints outside the town informed him that the reinforcements were meant to back an attack on the town.
Dahab had said he would withdraw from Radda on conditions that a council be set up to govern the town under Islamic law and that several jailed comrades, including his brother Nabil, be released, but talks fell through.
A tribesman involved in negotiating with Dahab on the government's behalf said other tribesmen were taking positions in the town and getting ready to fight.
"The fighters are equipped with machine guns, mortar shells, rocket propelled grenades and shoulder-borne rockets. Shop owners have moved their goods into storehouses outside the town and the situation could explode at any moment," he said.
Opponents of Saleh have accused him of exaggerating and even encouraging Islamist militancy in Yemen to bolster his position by presenting himself as the only person who can prevent Al-Qaeda from growing stronger.
Saleh, who formally handed power to his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in November, travelled to Oman on Sunday and is due to travel to the United States for medical treatment soon, though he said in a parting speech he would return to Yemen.
Hadi, whom parliament has endorsed as sole candidate in an election to pick Saleh's successor next month, on Sunday spoke to US counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who promised US support, state news agency Saba reported.