SANAA (Reuters) - The appearance of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh for the first time since an assassination attempt sent supporters into the streets to celebrate and led opponents to conclude he had no intention of stepping down.
Saleh, who flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment following the June 3 attack on his presidential compound, had severe burns on his face and was visibly weaker in the pre-recorded speech broadcast on Yemeni television Thursday.
While recovering in Riyadh, he has hung on to power despite international pressure and six months of protests against his 33-year rule.
Veteran leaders in Egypt and Tunisia bowed to popular demands they quit, but Saleh has proved a shrewd political survivor, backing out three times from a Gulf-brokered deal to hand over power.
Yemeni protesters, who hoped they had seen the last of Saleh when he left for Riyadh, said the speech did nothing to end the political stalemate.
“His speech didn’t offer anything new. It’s the same thing he used to say before the attack. You don’t feel there’s any real commitment to transferring power, but rather that the situation is heading back to square one,” said a leader of Yemen’s main opposition bloc.
In a note of defiance, Saleh, whose hands and fingers were heavily bandaged, said he would “confront a challenge with a challenge,” a phrase he has often used in speeches.
“We are not against participation, we are for participation with all political powers ... but in the light of a program which the people agree upon,” Saleh said.
Supporters rejoiced at his reappearance, and a fireworks display lit the sky over the capital Sanaa after his speech.
“When I saw him I knew for certain he will return and I expressed my joy by firing 30 bullets from my rifle into the air,” said Shayef Abdullah. “I did not sleep from happiness. We have beaten those who think the president will not return.”
Speculation about the likelihood of Saleh’s return to Yemen had been rife since he was badly injured when at least one bomb planted in his palace mosque exploded.
He said he had undergone eight operations in Saudi Arabia.
Even if Saleh is well enough to go back to Yemen, his Saudi hosts may not let him, one analyst said.
“I think we need to start considering whether Saleh is a guest or prisoner, and will he be able to return to Yemen at all,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at Middle East think tank INEGMA.
Riyadh and Western powers are keen to put an end to the crisis in Yemen. They fear al Qaeda is exploiting a security vacuum in the south of the country, from where it has previously launched failed attacks against the United States.
Opponents of Saleh, who had earned U.S. backing by portraying himself as a bulwark against al Qaeda, say he has deliberately let militants get the upper hand in Yemen’s south to convince the United States and Saudi Arabia that only he stands in the way of a militant Islamist takeover.
A socialist opposition party leader said the fact Saleh did not mention al Qaeda in his speech proved this hypothesis. “He avoided talking about al Qaeda which strengthens the conviction that he has surrendered the southern provinces to elements of the organization,” said Mohammed Ghalib Ahmed.
In recent months, militants have seized two cities in the southern province of Abyan, including its capital, Zinjibar. Some 54,000 Yemenis have fled Abyan since then, a government official in charge of refugee affairs said last week.
“We don’t care if he appeared or not,” said Aden resident Amjad Majed, referring to Saleh. “The important thing for us is to end these difficult conditions which encircle us, primarily the decline of basic services like electricity, water, cooking gas and fuel.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf in Aden Isabel Coles in Dubai; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Reed Stevenson and Michael Roddy