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Yemen president warns al-Qaida seeks to rule again

SANAA, Yemen — Yemen's president said Saturday that al-Qaida militants in his country are trying to retake areas they once controlled in the south, but that a military offensive this week helped thwart those plans.

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was speaking at the second round of "national dialogue" talks aimed at mapping out the country's future. United Nations envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar attended the session in the capital Sanaa on Saturday, as did the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which represents six countries in the region.

The conference brings together hundreds of representatives, activists and prominent figures from around the country. They will be discussing reports issued by nine committees that have been working since the first rounds of sessions were launched in March.

Among the country's most pressing issues are widespread poverty and divided loyalties. Some southerners have used the conference to demand secession from the north. Southerners joined a unified Yemen in 1990, but have long complained that they have fared worse under Sanaa's rule.

Yemen is also battling an active al-Qaida branch that continuously carries out deadly attacks against its military.

Washington considers the branch as one of the world's most dangerous. Yemen's military, backed by the United States, routed al-Qaida militants from the southern province of Abyan last year after the group took control there during a period of political turmoil in 2011. It was the first time al-Qaida ruled an area in the Arabian Peninsula.

Hadi told participants at the conference Saturday that al-Qaida was hoping to repeat the Abyan scenario in the southeastern province of Hadramawt.

His comments come after thousands of Yemeni troops backed by tanks and warplanes launched an offensive on Wednesday in Hadramawt to drive al-Qaida militants from the area, killing at least seven suspected militants. The United States has also carried out drone strikes in the area targeting militants, though it rarely comments on specifics in the covert program.

The country's longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to resign in early 2012 after more than a year of protests, was accused by the opposition at the time of turning a blind eye to al-Qaida's gains in Abyan and of focusing his efforts on trying to quell the uprising against his regime.

Saleh signed a U.S-backed power-transfer deal that granted him immunity from prosecution, though on Saturday a Yemeni court ordered him and 10 others to questioning by public prosecutors over a March 2011 incident in which more than 50 peaceful protesters were killed by snipers on rooftops overlooking the main protest square after traditional Friday prayers.