SANAA/ADEN (Reuters) - Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared on television on Thursday for the first time since an assassination attempt a month ago and said he was ready to share power within the constitution’s framework.
Saleh, who is recovering in Riyadh after the June 3 bomb attack on his presidential compound, showed signs of severe burns to his face which was covered with white stubble instead of his trademark thick mustache.
He had heavily bandaged arms and hands in the appearance on Yemen TV in a pre-recorded interview.
“We are not against participation, we are for participation with all political powers, whether they are in opposition or ruling, but in the light of a program which the people agree upon,” Saleh said.
Saleh, who flew to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment after the attack, has hung on to power despite international pressure and six months of protests against his 33-year rule.
In a note of defiance, Saleh said he would “confront a challenge with a challenge,” a phrase he has often used in speeches.
Speculation about Saleh’s health and the likelihood of his return to Yemen has been rife in the past five weeks. “I had eight successful operations and suffered from burns,” he said, thanking Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for hosting him.
“The speech was normal, it did not offer anything new. It’s the same speech we’re used to from Saleh,” an activist said in Sanaa, which erupted in firework displays and celebratory gunfire after the speech. Six protesters were killed and a hundred were injured as a result, a medical source told Reuters.
In the city of Ibb, south of Sanaa, armed men loyal to the ruling party attacked protesters, killing two and injuring 10, a medical source told Reuters.
Opposition official Sultan al-Atwani said Saleh’s speech did little more than clarify rumors about his injuries: “It’s clear that his state is not great. As for his speech, it wasn’t anything new and the participation of which he spoke will not come until a national dialogue after a transfer of power.”
Earlier on Thursday, an opposition leader said Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has taken the helm during Saleh’s absence, had approached the opposition with a new plan to end the country’s political stalemate.
Under this plan, Saleh would have stayed in power longer than outlined in a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) initiative which the president backed out of three times at the last minute, leaving the country in political limbo.
Under the GCC deal, Saleh would have resigned 30 days after signing up to it.
“The essence of these ideas is to begin the transitional period by forming one national government led by the opposition and changing the date of presidential elections from 60 days to a longer period, without transferring power completely to the vice president,” said the opposition leader, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity after the meeting with Hadi.
The new plan was a step backwards for the opposition, which had hoped Saleh’s time was up when he left the country. While veteran leaders in Egypt and Tunisia have bowed to popular demands they quit, Saleh has proved a shrewd political survivor.
The political impasse has paralyzed the impoverished state, which is on the brink of civil war with rebels in the north, separatists in the south and army generals defecting from Saleh.
At least 10 soldiers were killed in an attack by militants on an army base near the southern town of Zinjibar, where a brigade has been trapped for more than a month. A local official said militants had started shelling the base late on Wednesday.
Yemen’s south has descended into bloodshed in recent months, with Islamist militants suspected of links to al Qaeda seizing two cities in the flashpoint province of Abyan, including Zinjibar, its capital.
Western powers and oil giant Saudi Arabia fear al Qaeda is exploiting the security vacuum in Yemen, from which it has previously launched failed attacks against the United States and a Saudi government minister.
Separately, unidentified gunmen stopped a vehicle carrying soldiers and civilians to the city of Lawdar, also in Abyan, and shot dead 10 soldiers after finding their military IDs, local residents said.
Opponents of Saleh, who earned U.S. backing by portraying himself as a partner against al Qaeda, accuse him of letting militants get the upper hand to convince the United States and Saudi Arabia only he can prevent an Islamist militant takeover.
A military official told Yemen’s state news agency on Thursday the army had dealt a blow to al Qaeda, killing two prominent members of the organization in the Zinjibar area.
Earlier, the official said a military commander of al Qaeda’s Yemen wing, Abu Khalid al-Asiri, was among 40 militants killed by armed forces in Abyan on Monday.
Additional reporting by Jason Benham in Dubai, Amena Bakr in Riyadh; writing by Isabel Coles and Nour Merza; editing by Philippa Fletcher