Yemen's Saleh to reappear as violence grips south

RIYADH/SANAA Sun Jun 26, 2011 3:11pm EDT

1 of 4. A school door is painted with the colours of Yemen's national flag, as a soldier stands guard, on the first day of the General Secondary Examinations in Sanaa June 26, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem

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RIYADH/SANAA (Reuters) - Wounded Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, not seen in public since an attack on his palace in early June, is well enough to return soon to Yemen and will make a media appearance within the next couple of days.

Speculation about Saleh's health and the likelihood of his return to Yemen have been rife since he was hurt in a bomb blast on June 3 in a mosque in his presidential palace. He flew to Saudi Arabia for treatment, leaving behind a country on the verge of civil war.

The president has not been seen in public since the explosion, which killed several people and wounded the prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and the speakers of both parliamentary chambers. It is not clear what role if any Saleh, under pressure to step down, sees for himself in ruling Yemen.

"He will appear within the next 48 hours despite our fear that the burns on his features and on different parts of his body will be an obstacle given that his appearance will not be as the media expects it," said Ahmed al-Sufi, the President's media secretary.

Yemen has been rocked by months of protests against Saleh's three decades of rule. Before that he was grappling with a rebellion in the north, separatist violence in the south and a resurgent wing of al Qaeda.

Sufi said Saleh was in good health and continued to direct Yemeni affairs from abroad. Saleh's deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has been at the helm while the president recovers.

A source close to the president said Saleh's condition was good enough to allow him to travel to Yemen soon.

"The bomb in the mosque was in close proximity to the president when it went off. He was really lucky to get out," the source, who was with Saleh during the attack, told Reuters.

Saleh is suffering from burns but they cover less than 40 percent of his body, the source said, addressing reports in recent weeks about the extent of his injuries.

Yemeni officials previously accused an opposition tribal coalition of shelling the palace, which it denied.

ANTI-SALEH MARCH

Last week, a Western diplomat told Reuters Saleh was unlikely to return home soon, as Saudi Arabia and the United States continue to push for a transfer of power under an existing Gulf Arab proposal for a transition in Yemen.

They fear a power vacuum and tribal warfare will be exploited by the local wing of al Qaeda to launch attacks in the Gulf region and beyond.

Tens of thousands marched in Sanaa on Sunday to demand Saleh leave power, condemning the United States and Saudi Arabia for what they saw as a failure to take a strong stand against him.

"The position of the United States and Saudi Arabia is against our revolution ... We want a transition council to be set up and for the remainders of the regime to leave," said demonstrator Imar Naji, referring to Saleh's sons who hold top military and security posts.

The proposal by Gulf Arab neighbors calls for Saleh to hand power over to his deputy, Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is acting president, as a step toward forming a new government and preparing for an election.

Ahmed Saleh, the president's son who heads the elite Republican Guards, said he backed Hadi's "efforts ... and meetings with opposition leaders and representatives of the international community to resolve the crisis..."

But he also voiced support for "constitutional legitimacy," terms often used by Saleh backers to justify his refusal to leave power, according to a statement on a Defense Ministry website.

Upon his return, President Saleh aims to propose two solutions, a source close to Saleh said.

"The first is to shift all power to the parliament and become just a figurehead," said the source. "The second will be to let a coalition government be formed and then hold early presidential elections and leave quietly."

VIOLENCE IN SOUTH

Underscoring the chaos in the country, especially in the south, an air raid on Saturday killed six militants on the outskirts of a village at the entrance to the volatile Abyan province.

A local official in Abyan told Reuters three soldiers were killed on Sunday in clashes with jihadist militants who took control of the province's capital Zinjibar in May.

Earlier, authorities detained the head of a prison and his deputy for questioning over the escape of 63 al Qaeda-affiliated inmates in the southern port city of al-Mukalla this week.

The jailbreak stoked fears militants are exploiting the unrest to gain a foothold in the impoverished state, from which they could launch attacks in the region and beyond.

Saleh's opponents say he is deliberately letting militants tighten their grip in the country to prove that only he stands in the way of an Islamist takeover.

In a sign of international unease, The U.N. Security Council voiced "grave concern" with the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, putting aside disagreements that had prevented the 15-nation body from speaking unanimously on the unrest there. (Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden and Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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