SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he is intent on leaving office in line with a Gulf-brokered power transfer plan and lashed out at his "deluded, malicious" opponents, in a speech on Saturday to mark the eve of the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha.
Nine months of anti-government protests have paralyzed impoverished Yemen, pushing it to the brink of civil war, but failing to dislodge Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 33 years.
The veteran leader has three times agreed to sign a power transition deal mediated by a group of wealthy Gulf Arab neighbors only to back out at the very last minute.
"We stress our intention to continue to support the efforts that Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is undertaking in light of his mandate to complete a dialogue with the opposition and sign the Gulf initiative and its operational mechanism ... to achieve a legitimate, peaceful and democratic transition and conduct early presidential elections," said Saleh in a speech carried by state news agency Saba.
Saleh, 69, in September empowered his deputy, Hadi, to hold a dialogue with the opposition and sign the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan in his stead. That deal would see him stand down and trigger early presidential elections.
In a scathing attack on his opponents, Saleh accused them of using women and children as human shields and creating "baths of blood" on Yemeni soil by blindly copying popular uprisings in other Arab countries this year.
"Our country is living through exceptional conditions of extreme difficulty and serious danger ... due to the suffocating political crisis that some forces hungry for the seat of power have illegitimately concocted," he said.
Neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia and the international community fear growing lawlessness in Yemen is giving al Qaeda's regional wing room to firm its foothold near oil shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden.
Earlier this week, the European Union envoy to Yemen was quoted as saying Saleh had moved a step closer to standing down by accepting a U.N. formula to ease a transition.
U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar visited Yemen in September to try to devise an operational mechanism for the Gulf initiative and overcome political deadlock that has deeply divided the country and loosened already weak central government control over whole swathes of territory.
But he left empty-handed after two weeks of shuttle diplomacy between the opposition and the ruling party.
Benomar's plan requires Saleh to shift power to Hadi ahead of an early presidential election, which would be held within two to three months.
In the interim, the opposition would form a government with the ruling party and a body would be set up to restructure the armed forces.
Away from the negotiating table, a local official in the volatile southern province of Abyan said Yemen's army had killed five suspected al Qaeda militants early on Saturday in the provincial capital Zinjibar, which the government said it had "liberated" from Islamist fighters in September.
The official said the militants, one of whom was Iraqi and another Saudi, had been standing near a mosque on the northern fringe of city when they came under artillery fire from the army.
Their bodies were carried off by their comrades and buried in the nearby militant stronghold of Jaar.