SANAA, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh abruptly returned home to Yemen on Friday after more than three months of being treated in Saudi Arabia for wounds from an assassination attempt, in a move apparently aimed to ensure his grip as his loyalists and opponents wage urban warfare in the capital.
Hours after his return, the fighting intensified as heavily shelling hit the strongholds of Saleh’s opponents in the capital, reinforcing fears that his return signals an escalation of fighting into an full-fledged attempt to crush his rivals.
The White House was blindsided by the sudden return. U.S. officials conceded it was a surprise and said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn’t warned of Saleh’s plans when she met Tuesday in New York with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, which has been working with Washington and Yemen to try to arrange a transfer of power.
The return could be a significant blow to those attempts. A degree of stability in the strategic but impoverished Arab nation is a priority for the United States, which wants a partner to continue the fight against one of al Qaeda’s most active branches, based in Yemen and accused of plotting attacks in the U.S. Islamic militants have already exploited months of turmoil to seize control of cities in southern Yemen.
“The cannons are now speaking. Gunfire is doing all the talking,” Obal said.
Saleh made no immediate public appearances, but his return breathed life into the camp of his supporters who turned up in the thousands for the Friday sermon that became a massive show of faith in the country’s leader for 33 years.
“We love you, Ali,” chanted thousands massed on Boulevard 70, a street near the presidential compound.
The return threatens to further break open the deep divisions that have riven Yemen since the protest movement kicked off in February demanding Saleh’s ouster and an end to his authoritarian regime. Saleh’s security forces cracked down hard on protesters, killing hundreds, which prompted members of his government, miltary and allied tribes to join the opposition.
In early June, an explosion ripped through a mosque where Saleh was praying in his Sanaa presidential compound. The blast left him severely burned over much of his body and wounded with wooden shards, and nearly a dozen of his top aides were seriously wounded. Saleh has since been in Saudi Arabia for treatment.
Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were believed to be trying to keep Saleh from leaving Saudi Arabia, and signing 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.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday, “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.
“A political solution is the best way to avoid bloodshed,” he said.
This week, the deadlock that endured even during Saleh’s absence broke down into the worst violence in months after he recently delegated his vice president to restart negotiations with opponents on the deal. It was considered another stalling tactic by Saleh. It sparked an escalation in the protests and a violent crackdown in Sanaa and other cities.View Entire Story
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