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As battles rage, president returns to Yemen

Saleh requests cease-fire; foes hope he’ll quit

Supporters on flagpoles celebrated Ali Abdullah Saleh’s return of to Yemen after nearly four months in Saudi Arabia. Supporters on flagpoles celebrated Ali Abdullah Saleh’s return of to Yemen after nearly four months in Saudi Arabia. (Hani Mohammed/Associated Press)
By Laura Kasinof
New York Times / September 24, 2011

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SANA, Yemen - President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a dramatic and sudden return to Yemen yesterday after nearly four months in Saudi Arabia, seeking to reinsert himself at the center of a slowly fracturing country mired in bloody clashes on the streets of its capital.

In a statement quoted by the state news agency, Saleh called for a cease-fire and a return to negotiations, saying “the solution is not in the barrels of guns and cannon, but in dialogue.’’ The report said he would deliver a speech tomorrow.

But his return appeared unlikely to immediately quell the fighting, which has left more than 70 people dead since Sunday in fierce street battles between government forces and soldiers who have sided with antigovernment protesters.

As word spread of Saleh’s return, gunfire rang out across the capital - much of it celebratory - and mixed with the thundering of artillery, raising fears that an effort by the president to retake control in the capital would only deepen the conflict in Sana, which came to a head this week after eight months of protests.

Saleh has not been in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation and a haven for extremists, since he left for Saudi Arabia to seek medical treatment in early June after a bomb attack on his presidential palace. The blast left him with severe burns over much of his body and killed several guards and a senior official of the governing party.

Yesterday, his jubilant supporters rode atop honking minibuses in areas of the capital controlled by the government and shouted, “The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh,’’ as thousands more gathered at a rally nearby, waving photographs of the president and flags of his ruling party.

Many high-ranking government officials said they were not given any warning of his return.

Two miles away, protesters at the antigovernment sit-in expressed shock and a belief that his presence would touch off new fighting. Thousands pumped their fists and chanted “The people want to prosecute the killer’’ at one end of the sprawling protest before prayers yesterday, while at the other end rebel soldiers in ramshackle bunkers clashed with government forces on otherwise empty streets.

One opposition leader, Mohammed Abdel-Malik al-Mutawakil, said the president came back to Yemen during intensifying clashes because “he knows that his son and nephews aren’t ready to solve’’ the conflict.

Saleh had once deftly balanced and exploited the tribal divisions in Yemen that now threaten to spiral into a wider conflict between well-armed factions.

Government soldiers, led by Saleh’s relatives, have been engaged in bloody street battles this week against troops loyal to Major General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, a powerful military commander who has sided with the protesters.

Ahmar announced his support for the antigovernment movement in March, and his First Armored Division has been protecting the demonstrators. The general, who is from the same village as the president, has had an uneasy relationship with Saleh. The general is reported to have begun distancing himself from Saleh years ago when he saw that he was grooming his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, to succeed him.

Hardliners in the governing party have insisted during Saleh’s absence that he would return to the country as president.

“I hope that Ali Abdullah Saleh can now act’’ on a transfer of power agreement, said Mutawakil, who has had a close relationship with Saleh although he is in the opposition.

Saleh has repeatedly agreed to step down in recent months, only to reverse himself at the last minute.

Last week, Saleh authorized his vice president to negotiate a transfer of power agreement known as the Gulf initiative, a step that seemed like it would inch things closer to presidential power transfer.

Saleh did not, however, authorize a full transfer of powers to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi.

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