President returns to Yemen, unsettling an already tense nation

09/23/2011 8:56 AM

11/23/2011 6:53 PM

SANAA, Yemen — The skies here erupted with fireworks and celebratory gunfire Friday as supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh celebrated his unexpected return from more than three months of medical treatment and convalescence in Saudi Arabia.

But the loud celebrations, which continued well into the night, masked the widespread concern that with Saleh apparently back in power, there would be no way to resolve this country's 7-month-old political crisis without widespread violence and even civil war.

State media quoted Saleh as calling for more negotiations and an end to the current round of fighting, which began on Sunday when government troops opened fire on anti-Saleh demonstrators who've occupied much of downtown Sanaa since February. There was little confidence, however, that more talk would lead to what opponents have demanded _ Saleh's resignation, something the United States and Yemen's oil-rich Gulf allies have tried to broker, unsuccessfully, for months.

"Saleh's return is like gasoline on a raging fire," wrote Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton-based Yemen analyst, warning that the president's arrival in Sanaa could herald Yemen's disintegration into chaos.

Saleh had been absent from the country since June 3, when he was flown to Saudi Arabia for emergency medical care after a bomb, planted in a mosque on the presidential compound's grounds, narrowly missed killing the president as he and other members of his government were praying.

His opponents cheered when Saleh left, expecting his stay in Saudi Arabia to mark the beginning of the end of his rule. But over the months, Saleh had been shown on state television as steadily improving, and last month he pledged he would return — though his arrival Friday morning apparently had not been telegraphed to officials or diplomats here.

By noon, thousands had massed in a park near the presidential compound for a pro-government rally, shouting slogans thanking God for Saleh's return.

Hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators also took to the streets in protests across the country. The crowds loudly renewed calls for political change and called for Saleh's trial, but many activists expressed apprehension that increasing tensions could leave their peaceful demonstrations overshadowed by a bloody conflict.

"We're still in shock, really, and for now all we have is rumors," said Atiaf al-Wazir, a Sanaa-based activist. "The fear is that this could lead to all-out war, which would spell the end of the revolution."

Sanaa has been wracked by the worst violence in months since Sunday's attack on the demonstrators.

Battles in the capital between government troops and anti-government fighters, including defected troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen, a former Saleh ally, have killed more than 100 people in the last five days.

On Friday, clashes continued in some parts of Sanaa, including the Hasaba district, home to powerful tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, whose militia fought an extended battle with government troops in May.

Ahmar, who broke with the president in March, has previously sworn that he would rather die than allow Saleh's return to power.

Members of the government have claimed that Mohsen and the Ahmar family were behind the June attack that forced Saleh to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.

Still, some analysts said that Saleh's return may not necessarily lead to violent conflagration, noting that Saleh's presence might actually allow for movement in stalled power transfer negotiations.

"The initial stages of any power transfer will likely hinge on an agreement between Saleh, Ali Mohsen, and the Ahmars," said Ginny Hill, a Yemen analyst at Chatham House, a British institute for foreign policy studies. "And due to the highly personal nature of the relationship between these three men, it's hard to imagine them reaching an agreement without a face-to-face meeting."

Saleh's return also was an indication of the United States' lack of influence in Yemen, which was once considered one of the closest U.S. allies in the war on terror. The Obama administration has called repeatedly for Saleh to step down.

In response to Saleh's return, White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated that call.

"In the light of the current instability, we urge President Saleh to initiate a full transfer of power," Carney said. "A political solution is the best way to avoid bloodshed."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Yemeni troops open fire on demonstrators, killing dozens

Healthier-looking Saleh tells Yemen he'll be back soon

Violence in Yemen sends thousands to lives underground

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