Video: Tensions high in Yemen amidst celebrations

updated 6/6/2011 6:26:53 PM ET 2011-06-06T22:26:53

With the wounded president out of Yemen, the United States and Saudi Arabia scrambled Monday to arrange a power transfer ensuring an end to his decades-long rule. But a top official said President Ali Abdullah Saleh, recovering in Saudi Arabia, would return home within days, a step almost certain to re-ignite violence.

A return by Saleh would likely spark new, intensified fighting between his forces and opposition tribesmen determined to topple him. Both sides' fighters are deployed in the streets of the capital, and a cease-fire brokered by Saudi Arabia only a day earlier was already starting to fray, with clashes killing at least six.

Saleh was rushed late Saturday to the Saudi capital for treatment after being wounded in a rocket attack on his palace amid two weeks of fighting in Sanaa. His departure raised cheers from protesters who have been turning out in the streets by the hundreds of thousands since February demanding his ouster. To them, it seemed inevitable he would be unable to come back.

But Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is acting leader in the president's absence, told European ambassadors Monday, "Saleh's health is improving greatly and he will return to the country in the coming days," the state news agency reported. Saleh underwent surgery to remove shards of wood from his chest and treat heavy burns on his face and chest.

A renewal of fighting could push the impoverished nation into outright civil war. The United States fears that al-Qaida's branch in Yemen could exploit the turmoil to strengthen its presence in the country, which it has already used as a base for plotting two attempted anti-U.S. attacks.

"We are calling for a peaceful and orderly transition, a nonviolent transition that is consistent with Yemen's own constitution," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "We think an immediate transition is in the best interests of the Yemeni people."

Furious diplomatic efforts were underway involving the Saudis, the United States, the Yemenis and Gulf Arab nations to work out a transfer of power, a U.S. official said. He likened the complex process to "four-dimensional chess." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The focus is on reviving a U.S.-backed deal mediated earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of Gulf Arab nations including Saudi Arabia. Under the deal, Saleh would retire, handing power to his vice president, a unity government between his party and the opposition would be formed and presidential elections held within two weeks.

In the past weeks, Saleh refused three times to sign the deal. As he was being evacuated for surgery over the weekend, he defied heavy Saudi pressure and refused to even sign a presidential decree formally transferring his authorities to Hadi, a sign he was intent on coming back.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hopes for an early resolution ot the crisis. Ban stopped short of calling on Saleh to step down. saying, "I hope by now he should make good judgment of his own."

Saudi Arabia on Monday pressed Saleh to sign now. After a Cabinet meeting headed by King Abdullah, the Saudi government expressed its "hope that the initiative be signed ... to get Yemen through the crisis, preserving its security, stability and unity."

The kingdom wields enormous influence with Saleh, providing his regime — and many of Yemen's tribes — with substantial financial aid. But it is unclear how far it would go to push him to accept the deal or prevent him from returning to his homeland. It and the United States have been deeply reluctant to enter into an open clash with a longtime ally.

The original agreement called for Saleh to remain in office for 30 days after signing. But the Yemeni opposition says the aim now that Saleh is out of the country is to have an immediate resignation, make the transfer of power to the vice president official and move on with the deal's provisions for a new government.

Abdullah Awabal, a Yemeni opposition leader who met a day earlier with the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, said the Saudis, Americans and Europeans are all "in agreement to implement the initiative now. There can be no waiting."

But Saleh's ruling party appeared to be digging in its heels. In a meeting of the party leadership with Hadi on Monday, hardliners rejected any discussion of the initiative until Saleh returns, an official who attended said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about the session.

"Nothing will happen without the approval of the president," Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janabi told reporters on Monday.

Saleh still has a powerful presence on the ground to back his hand: his sons and nephews, who command Yemen's strongest military units and who remain in the country. Their forces remained deployed around Sanaa on Monday, locked in a tense standoff with tribal fighters. Saleh's most powerful son, Ahmed, head of the special forces and Republican Guard, attended a session of the national security council with Hadi for the first time Monday — a sign that he was actively weighing in on the political situation.

Saleh's family may have the most to lose in any deal, since many in the opposition demand that their lock on top government and security positions be broken.

Tribal fighters loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar rose up on May 23 after Saleh's forces moved against al-Ahmar's residence in Sanaa. The ensuing fighting saw heavy street battles, killing dozens, with government artillery hammering Sanaa's Hassaba district, where al-Ahmar's home is located. Tribal fighters overwhelmed more than a dozen government ministries in the area. Al-Ahmar leads Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation.

Friday's stunning rocket attack, which the government first blamed on tribal fighters and later on al-Qaida, hit a mosque in Saleh's palace, killing 11 bodyguards and seriously injuring five senior officials worshipping at his side.

Amid the uncertainty, the cease-fire was shaky.

Gunmen — apparently pro-Saleh forces — attacked tribal fighters in Hassaba on Monday, killing three tribesmen, al-Ahmar's office said.

Late Sunday, pro-government gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint manned by a military unit that defected and joined the opposition, an officer from the unit said. In the clash, two of the attackers and one of the unit's soldiers were killed, the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Hassaba remained tense, with government forces dug in despite promises under the cease-fire that they would pull back from their positions. Residents trying to return to their homes in the neighborhood were forced back by snipers firing from rooftops, another pro-opposition military officer said. While unable to enter the district, an Associated Press reporter who reached the edges could see broken electricity pylons and shops and buildings pockmarked by mortar shrapnel.

___

Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Matthew Lee in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the U.N. and Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh contributed to this report.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: July

loading photos...
  1. A man prepares the grave of Hassan al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa, July 19. Fighting between government forces and opposition supporters erupted in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Monday, killing six people, among them al-Hora, opposition sources said. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, July 19. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl has ''will not leave'' written on her face during a rally to support Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa July 17. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Anti-government protestors shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, July 13. (Mohammed Hamoud / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An anti-government protester writes slogans on a wall using his own blood during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at Tagheer square in Sanaa on July 13. The words read "In my blood I protect Yemen." (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Girls light candles as they attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz July 9. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Yemeni anti-government protester displays bullets allegedly fired by supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration demanding Saleh’s ousting, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 8. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sit on stone pillars during a rally in support of President Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen, on July 8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged rallies around his vacant palace Friday after their leader's first TV appearance since being injured in a blast last month and leaving for treatment in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammed Al-Sayaghi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A supporter of Saleh kisses his picture as his supporters celebrate in Sanaa on July 7 after he appeared on television for the first time since he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saleh delivers a speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 7, making his first public appearance since he was wounded in an attack on his palace in Sanaa in June. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anti-government protesters join their hands and shout slogans demanding an end to the 32-year regime of President Saleh, in Sanaa on July 6. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A police vehicle is set ablaze during clashes between armed followers of the opposition and police in the southern city of Taiz on July 6. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A relative of victims of recent clashes talks to a member of the United Nations human rights investigation team, left, in Sanaa on July 5. The U.N. team arrived in Yemen last week to assess the situation in the country after months of unrest. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women recite prayers during a rally to demand the ouster of President Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on July 1. Tens of thousands of Yemenis turned Friday prayers into rallies for and against Saleh, who is recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt in June. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  2. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  3. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  4. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  5. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos
  6. YEMEN
    Karim Ben Khelifa
    Slideshow (20) Yemen in the spotlight

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments