Yemen’s Saleh back in Sanaa as battles rage

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to Sanaa after more than three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, even as his forces were battling dissident troops in the capital.


Saleh’s surprise return was announced by state television. He arrived by plane in Sanaa at 5:00 am, an airport source told AFP.

The 69-year-old Saleh, who has since January faced massive street protests demanding he step down, was hospitalised in Riyadh on June 4, a day after being badly wounded in a bomb attack on his Sanaa compound.

It was not clear if his homecoming presaged a yielding to demands since January that he step down or plans to reassert his authority over an increasingly divided country.

His return came as his forces fought dissidents loyal to General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar in Sanaa for a sixth straight day, with more than 100 people killed in the surge of violence that erupted on Sunday.

Both sides are backed by rival tribesmen, with witnesses saying the fighting on Friday was concentrated in the capital’s northern Al-Hasaba district but was also raging in other neighbourhoods.

On Thursday, Al-Hasaba became the theatre of bloody clashes between gunmen loyal to powerful dissident tribal chief Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, from the same tribe as General Ahmar, and followers of Saghir bin Aziz, a tribesman allied to Saleh.

After dying down during the night, the fighting resumed at dawn Friday. Witnesses reported shelling and machine-gun fire in Al-Hasaba, and tribal sources said Saleh’s forces were bombarding the district with mortars.

An Ahmar tribal source said four people were killed in Al-Hasaba, while medics reported two people killed when a shell smashed into Change Square, epicentre of anti-Saleh protests in the centre of Sanaa.

The latest deaths bring the toll since the latest surge of fighting erupted in Sanaa on Sunday to 101, according to a tally of figures by medics and tribal sources.

Most of the fighting since Sunday has been in the centre of Sanaa, pitting Republican Guard troops commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmed against General Ahmar’s dissidents.

The general’s forces have been protecting anti-regime protesters who since February have camped out in their thousands at Change Square to press their demand that Saleh, in power for 33 years, step aside.

Friday’s fighting comes ahead of the weekly Muslim main prayers, traditionally followed by rival rallies attended by tens of thousands of Saleh supporters and those opposed to him.

In Taez, southwest of Sanaa, one person was killed and two wounded when a shell struck among anti-regime protesters in Liberty Square, and a hotel caught fire, demonstrators said.

Saleh was released from hospital at the beginning of August but has been recuperating ever since in the Saudi capital.

He appeared for the first time after the bomb attack on television on July 7, covered in bandages and his face clearly showing burn wounds.

On September 12, he authorised his deputy to negotiate a power transfer as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council initiative to end the political stalemate that has gripped his country since January.

The latest bloodletting has stalled the peace deal. GCC chief Abdullatif al-Zayani, who had been hoping earlier in the week to persuade all sides to sign on to the pact, left Yemen empty-handed on Wednesday.

He is expected in New York on Friday to discuss the crisis with GCC foreign ministers and international diplomats gathered for the annual UN General Assembly, a Yemeni diplomat said.

The soaring violence has raised long-standing fears that Yemen, which faces a Shiite rebellion in the north and a separatist movement and the growing influence of Al-Qaeda in the south, is heading for full-blown civil war.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned Thursday that Yemen was at a “dangerous crossroad.”

She noted that a mission dispatched by her office last week criticised the regime for deploying excessive force including live ammunition, snipers and heavy weaponry to quell protests, which led to a “heavy loss of life.”

“It is disappointing that lessons have not been learnt and violations repeated,” she added.

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