Saleh returns to Yemen, US demands he step down

His reappearance raises big questions over future the fractious Arabian Peninsula state, which has been paralyzed by protests since January.

September 23, 2011 22:13
3 minute read.
Saleh vows to return to Yemen.

saleh 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

SANAA - President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to Yemen after a three-month absence calling for an end to heavy fighting on Friday, but opponents said they feared more bloodshed and the United States demanded he relinquish power.

Saleh, who went to neighboring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in June when he suffered severe burns in an assassination attempt, urged a ceasefire between his supporters and opponents to halt five days of fighting in the capital Sanaa.

Death toll rises as shells hit Yemen protest camp

His reappearance raised big questions over the future of the fractious Arabian Peninsula state, which has been paralyzed by protests against his 33-year rule since January.

In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We urge President Saleh to initiate a full transfer of power and arrange for presidential elections to be held before the end of then year.

"The Yemeni people have suffered enough and deserve a path towards a better future."

In Sanaa this week, a months-old standoff between loyalist troops and forces backing anti-Saleh protesters erupted into a full-blown battle that killed more than 100 people in five days.

Yemen, one of the region's poorest, also faces a worsening insurgency by al Qaida militants, an uneasy truce with Shi'ite fighters in the north and separatism in the south.

Moments after state television's announcement of Saleh's return, Sanaa's streets erupted with bursts of gunfire and fireworks. Shelling occurred in the capital's Hasaba district.

Saleh called for a ceasefire so that talks could be held.

"I return to the nation carrying the dove of peace and the olive branch," state television quoted Saleh as saying.

Opponents saw his return as an attempt to rally for war and said they expected more bloodshed, while his supporters reacted with joy and said he could restore order.

"I'm so excited," said Akram al-Aghbari, a doorman. "He is an honorable and great man. I know he's coming to stop this terrible violence. People here without him only know how to rule with weapons, but with him back, just you watch."

Abdulghani al-Iryani, a political analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement, said violence lay ahead.

"This is an ominous sign. Returning at a time like this probably signals he intends to use violence to resolve this. This is dangerous," said Iryani.

"His people will feel that they are in a stronger position and they will refuse to compromise. Basically this means the political process is dead in the water."

Many Yemenis thought they had seen the last of Saleh when he flew to Saudi Arabia in June for medical treatment after a bomb explosion at his palace left him with severe burns.

Saleh had been involved in negotiations mediated by Gulf states to leave office, repeatedly promising to step down only to change his position at the last minute.

The United States said on Friday it wanted Saleh to sign the accord promoted by the Gulf Cooperation Council.

"I can't believe he came back. He shouldn't have come back," said Yasser, a hotel cleaner. "Us regular people, we are so sick of all of them: the opposition and the government. Can't they see they're going to ruin this country?"

Two members of Saleh's General People's Congress party denied opposition statements that his return spelled the end for the Gulf-brokered power transfer plan, which would see him hand interim power to Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

"This initiative remains effective and Hadi will continue the dialogue to create a binding mechanism to implement the Gulf initiative," Yasser al-Yamani told Al Jazeera television.

The Gulf initiative envisages Saleh standing down three months after signing it. He has agreed three times to earlier drafts of the deal only to back out of it at the very last minute.

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