SAN’A, Yeme – Allies of Yemen’s president and his political opponents failed to make progress Saturday in talks on a possible exit for the man who has led the nation through 32 years of growing poverty and conflict and whose rule is now deeply imperiled by a popular uprising.

As the political turmoil deepened, there were signs that Islamic militants in the remote reaches of the country were seeking to make gains on the situation. Residents and witnesses in the small town of Jaar in the south said suspected al-Qaida militants moved down from an expanse of mountains on Saturday to seize control there a few weeks after police fled, setting up checkpoints and occupying vacant government buildings.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh argued in a TV interview that without him, the country would be at risk of breaking apart.

“Yemen is a ticking bomb and if the political system collapses and there’s no constructive dialogue there will be a long civil war that will be difficult to end,” he told the Al-Arabiya network.

Officials on both sides of Saturday’s talks, which were attended by the U.S. ambassador, said the parties refused to give any ground. After six weeks of unprecedented protests in Yemen, Saleh says he is willing to step aside, but has left himself room to maneuver by adding the condition that he wants to leave the country in “safe hands.”

The protesters — whose ranks have been bolstered by defecting military commanders, lawmakers, Cabinet ministers, diplomats and even Saleh’s own tribe — are insisting he go immediately. The demands and defections have only grown since government security forces — including snipers on rooftops — shot dead more than 40 demonstrators in the capital of San’a a week ago.

The United States considers Saleh a key ally against an active al-Qaida branch that calls Yemen home and funds his security forces to fight it.