President Saleh’s Surprise Return to Yemen

Sep 23, 2011 2:58am

ABC News’ Molly Hunter (@MollyMHunter) reports:

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has unexpectedly returned to the Yemen capital of Sana’a after three months in Saudi Arabia, according to Yemen State TV and the Yemen Embassy in Washington. State TV did not show footage of Saleh’s arriving in Sana’a but reported that the president arrived by private plane and is in good health.

“Abdullah Saleh, President of the Republic of Yemen returned to Yemen after a three month long medical stay in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” according to an embassy statement.

Saleh’s first order of business was to call for a ceasefire and continued negotiations, the Associated Press reported. The president’s office released the written statement today, urging leaders to end the fighting immediately.

Saleh has been in Saudi Arabia since June for medical treatment after an assassination attempt, a bomb attack on the presidential palace that reportedly left the aging president severely injured. The announcement of his return comes amid a violent week in Yemen. More than 100 unarmed protesters have been killed since Sunday when the elite Republican Guards,  led by Saleh’s son, clashed with opposition forces loyal to the former army Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar. Al-Ahmar defected in March to lead the First Armored Division.

Local journalists told ABC News that heavy gunfire broke out this morning in Sana’a after the news of the president’s arrival. Pro-Saleh supporters were chanting, “Thank God our leader has returned,” freelance journalist Tom Finn said.

After Friday prayers, local media reported, thousands of pro-Saleh and anti-Saleh protesters took to the streets of the capital to stage rival rallies.

State TV filled this morning’s broadcast with images of Saleh supporters waving flags and photographs of the president, but Saleh’s return could spark further violence.

“His return means more divisions, more escalation and confrontations,” Abdel-Hadi al-Azizi, a protest leader, told the Associated Press. “We are on a very critical escalation.”

Meanwhile, Abdu al-Janadi, the deputy minister of  information, said, “[Saleh's return] will put an end to a lot of dispute that has been going on.”

Ceasefire negotiations stalled again this week after Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary General Abdullahtif al-Zayani flew to Yemen but left after two days, defeated. The Yemeni government agreed to a truce Tuesday after negotiations with Western envoys but the ceasefire broke down hours later, the BBC reported. A new attempt by the GCC to end the crisis ended Wednesday without success and rumors have been swirling Friday morning that a new non-GCC deal is in the works.

Saudi Arabia and the United States have attempted to broker a deal from abroad that would form a national unity government but the president has repeatedly backed out at the last minute, extending the eight-month-long stalemate.

But Washington is still hopeful. State Dept spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “We want to see Yemen move forward on the basis of the GCC proposal whether President Saleh is in or out of the country. He can make that happen by signing this accord, stepping down from power and allowing his country to move on.”

In a sign interpreted by some as progress, Saleh authorized his vice president to negotiate for him last week on the Gulf initiative, but no agreement was signed. Saleh has been clinging to his 33-year rule since January, in the face of violent protests in the Arab world’s poorest nation. About 400 protesters have reportedly been killed since January and 15 people were killed Thursday.

Kirit Radia (@KiritRadia_ABC) and Lara Setrakian (@Lara) contributed to this report.

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