Yemen president returns, adds confusion to crisis

Yemen president returns, adds confusion to crisis
News
Friday, September 23, 2011 - 2:30pm

SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a surprise return to Yemen on Friday after more than three months of treatment in Saudi Arabia for wounds suffered in an assassination attempt in a move certain to further inflame battles between his loyalists and opponents that have turned the capital into a war zone.

Saleh called for a cease-fire and said negotiations were the only way out of the crisis, but after nightfall powerful explosions shook the city as his forces shelled the strongholds of a rival tribe and a military unit that have joined the opposition. Salah's statement suggested he does not intend to step down immediately, and the opposition said he had come back only to bolster his forces in the week-old battles in Sanaa.

Saleh "returned to run the war and drive the country into an all-out civil war," Abdullah Obal, an opposition leader.

"The cannons are now speaking. Gunfire is doing all the talking," he said. "The opposition can't meet in this atmosphere. The military people are the masters of the situation now."

Saleh's return is a blow to already crumbling efforts by the United States and Saudi Arabia to work out a peaceful handover of power in the strategically placed but deeply divided and impoverished nation. Washington is eager for some sort of post-Saleh stability in hopes of continuing an alliance against al-Qaida militants in Yemen - the terror network's most active branch, blamed in several plots for attacks on U.S soil.

The two countries have been pushing a deal by which Saleh would resign in return for immunity from prosecution. After Saleh's return, the White House held out hope for salvaging the accord.

"We urge President Saleh to initiate a full transfer of power and arrange for presidential elections to be held before the end of the year within the framework" of the agreement, said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "A political solution is the best way to avoid bloodshed."

Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were believed to be trying to keep Saleh from leaving Saudi Arabia. Obal blamed the two countries for not exerting enough pressure on Saleh to step down. He said the opposition was hardening its position in the face of Saleh's return, saying any accord "can no longer give guarantees against prosecution amid all this killing."

Saleh went to Saudi Arabia for treatment after he was severely burned over much of his body and wounded by shards of wood in a June 3 explosion at his presidential compound in the capital Sanaa. His departure fueled hopes that he would be forced to step down, but instead he staunchly refused to resign, frustrating protesters who have been taking to the streets nearly daily since February demanding an end to his 33-year old rule.

As time passed and Saleh recuperated, he was widely expected to stay in the kingdom - and the timing of his return Friday was a surprise.

This week, the deadlock that endured even during Saleh's absence broke down into the worst violence in months as forces loyal to the president's son attacked protesters in the streets and battled troops led by one of the regime's top rivals, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a former Saleh aide who joined the opposition early in the uprising.

Around 100 people have been killed - mostly protesters as regime troops hit their gathering with shelling or barrages of sniper fire from rooftops. Residents have been forced to hunker down in their homes or flee the city as the two sides exchanged bombardment over Sanaa from strongholds in the surrounding hills.

The fighting continued after Saleh returned at dawn Friday. Heavy clashes and thuds of mortars were heard throughout the night in Sanaa and into morning hours. Mortars hit the square in central Sanaa where protesters demanding Saleh's ouster are camped out, killing two. Other mortars hit a group of anti-Saleh tribal fighters in a neighborhood where battles have raged with Saleh loyalists, killing two tribesmen.

During the day Friday, thousands of Saleh supporters and opponents poured into the streets for parallel rallies in different parts of Sanaa during a lull in fighting for weekly Friday prayers.

At the pro-Saleh rally along Boulevard 70 in southern Sanaa, sermon leaders accused the opposition of attempting a coup and warned against civil war. Saleh's supporters carried his pictures along with those of the Saudi king in a tribute to the neighboring country where Saleh was recovering. Some chanted, "We love you, Ali."

At the opposition rally on Boulevard 60, demonstrators carried pictures of those killed in the violence as speakers urged security forces to stop killing their own people. "The people want the trial of the butcher," the crowd chanted.

Abdel-Hadi al-Azazi, a protest leader, warned that Saleh's return means "more divisions, more escalation and confrontations."

"We are on the verge of a very critical escalation," he told The Associated Press.

Saleh did not appear in public after his return, and state TV showed no new footage of him, though it said he was in good health. In a statement on the state news agency, Saleh called for a truce, saying, "The solution won't be through cannons and barrels, but through dialogue, understanding and ending the bloodshed," he said.

Sultan al-Barkani, the head of the ruling party's bloc in parliament and a Saleh backer, told Al-Jazeera that it was "totally unlikely" that the president will step down. "Saleh will not leave except through elections," he said.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been trying to persuade Saleh to sign onto a deal proposed by Gulf Arab states, under which he would resign and hand power to his vice president to form a national unity government in return for immunity from any prosecution.

The mercurial Saleh has repeated promised to sign the agreement, then refused at the last minute.

The latest violence erupted after he recently delegated his vice president to restart negotiations with opponents on the deal. It was considered another stalling tactic by Saleh, and it was followed by a violent crackdown on protesters in Sanaa and other cities.

Yemen's turmoil began in February as the unrest spreading throughout the Arab world set off largely peaceful protests in this deeply unstable corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Saleh's government responded with a heavy crackdown, with hundreds killed and thousands wounded so far.

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