Yemeni ruler states no plan to leave
Saleh’s speech 1st since return from treatment
SANA, Yemen - Yemen’s defiant president addressed his troubled nation yesterday for the first time since returning to the country after an assassination attempt, making no promise to immediately step down but saying he is committed to a deal to end months of spiraling violence.
Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared in improved health after nearly four months of treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia for severe burns and other injuries he suffered in a June 3 attack on his compound in Yemen’s capital, Sana. Saleh abruptly returned on Friday, and a week of renewed clashes with his opponents intensified, littering the streets of the capital with bodies.
“The crisis is big. You who are chasing power, let’s all go to the ballot boxes,’’ Saleh said, speaking to his opponents and suggesting elections rather than agreeing to step down.
Yemen’s autocratic ruler of 33 years is under pressure from street protesters and neighboring Arab nations to transfer power to end the country’s deepening crisis, which has killed hundreds since antigovernment demonstrations began in February, ignited by the unrest sweeping the Arab world.
He has signaled an intention several times to sign a US-backed deal to step aside in exchange for immunity from prosecution only to back out at the last minute.
In yesterday’s televised address, he said he was committed to the deal, which was drafted by an alliance of Gulf nations that includes powerful Saudi Arabia.
His opponents, however, say they do not trust him and believe he is just stalling for time while consolidating his hold on power. Saleh has charged his vice president with overseeing negotiations on the deal, but at no point in his address did he provide any indication he might agree to demands to step down immediately.
Yemen’s turmoil is of enormous concern to the United States and Europe because the country has become a haven for Islamic militants, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington says is the most dangerous remnant of the global terror network.
Al Qaeda-linked fighters have already taken advantage of the unrest to overrun several towns in southern Yemen, expanding their range of influence beyond Yemen’s remote hinterlands.
Saleh accused his opponents of cooperating with Al Qaeda by plotting a coup and shedding blood in an attempt to seize power.
“Al Qaeda is completely supported by the outlaw elements who are against constitutional legitimacy,’’ he said.
In turn, the opposition and some elements in the security establishment have accused Saleh of allowing Al Qaeda-linked fighters to take over the southern towns to heighten fears in the West. Saleh himself has made the argument many times that without him in power, Islamic militants would seize the entire country.
Saleh has insisted on early presidential and parliamentary elections. But under the Gulf-mediated power-transfer deal, Saleh would have to step down first.
At times, yesterday’s address was conciliatory, putting his words in sharp contrast with the increased bloodshed in the streets during the past week, which has included progovernment snipers firing on unarmed protesters.
Last week Saleh’s forces unleashed heavy shelling on renegade army troops and protesters who have held a sit-in since February at a plaza in the capital they dubbed Change Square. About 150 people were killed in the renewed fighting.
Hours before he spoke, Saleh’s forces opened fire on protesters in the heart of Sana, injuring at least 18 people. A day earlier, Yemen witnessed one of the bloodiest days of the uprising as Saleh’s forces waged attacks on protesters and a renegade army unit that was protecting them, killing more than 40 people.