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

SANAA, Yemen — Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, looking healthier than at any time since he was wounded in an apparent assassination attempt June 3, lashed out at his opponents in a prerecorded speech aired on government TV here Tuesday that reignited the debate over his rule.

"See you soon in Sanaa," he said, echoing other government figures' assurances of his imminent return from Saudi Arabia, where he's been undergoing treatment for his injuries.

Saleh has been the target of more than six months of anti-government demonstrations, and many of his tribal, political and military allies have turned against him. Yet efforts to broker a deal that would see him step down haven't come to fruition.

Many in the country wrote off Saleh when he left Yemen for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after an explosion rocked the mosque where he and other top government figures had been worshipping. Saleh has undergone at least eight surgeries since the apparent assassination attempt, which reportedly left him with burns over nearly 40 percent of his body

Judging by Tuesday's video, Saleh has made a remarkable recovery.

In his first video appearance July 7, he appeared frail, his face darkened and his voice weak. But a stream of videos released through Yemen state television in the weeks since have shown his steady improvement, and in Tuesday's video he appeared strikingly healthy, even if his hands remained covered by protective gloves. His trademark mustache was once again visible, while his face took on a nearly luminous, ruddy tone.

In his comments, the president repeated previous calls for his political opponents to join in dialogue. But his tone was far more combative than conciliatory and he didn't mention a deal, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, that would have him resign in return for amnesty from prosecution for any crimes he might have committed. Saleh has refused repeatedly to sign the accord.

The bulk of Saleh's comments appeared aimed at pre-empting an announcement by his opponents, set for Wednesday, of a transitional council to run the country, a move that a government spokesman called tantamount to a "call for war."

In his remarks, Saleh dismissed Yemen's opposition as made up primarily of vestiges of failed Marxist, monarchical and extremist ideologies that have cynically mimicked the demands of the youthful protesters who started the anti-Saleh demonstrations. Referring to the formation of the transition council, Saleh argued that the opposition lacks his constitutional mandate and can gain true legitimacy only through the ballot box. Presidential elections are currently scheduled for 2013.

"They do not say they want early elections, no; they say, 'We want to establish a national council,' " he said, adding, "We have legitimacy until 2013."

Saleh's speech inspired predictably polarizing reactions among Yemenis. The president's supporters lighted fireworks and unleashed barrages of celebratory gunfire, illuminating the sky over the capital, which itself was darkened by persistent power cuts. Simultaneously, Saleh's opponents continued to throng squares across the country.

Saleh's return would be likely to lead to an escalation in violence and could push the impoverished nation to civil war. The United States and Saudi Arabia, previously among Saleh's primary backers, reportedly have pushed Saleh to remain in Riyadh since his recent release from the hospital. But Saudi officials have said he's free to leave if he wants.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland left it clear the U.S. would like Saleh to step down.

"If he is well enough to make a statement, he is well enough to sign the GCC agreement and allow his country to move on," she said.

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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