The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, addressed his troubled nation for the first time since returning to the country after an assassination attempt in June, and said he was committed to a deal to end months of escalating violence.
Although he made no promise to step down, Yemen’s autocratic ruler of 33 years said he wanted to transfer power through early presidential elections. He has signalled an intention several times to sign a US-backed deal to step aside in exchange for immunity from prosecution only to back out at the last minute.
In Sunday’s televised address, made on an eighth day of violence that has rocked the capital Sana’a raising the death toll to more than 100, he said he was committed to the deal, which was drafted by an alliance of Gulf nations that includes Saudi Arabia. “Let’s all go towards dialogue, understanding and peaceful exchange of power through elections and early presidential elections,” he said.
His opponents, however, do not trust him and believe he is stalling for time while consolidating his hold on power. Saleh has tasked his vice president with overseeing negotiations on the deal, but at no point in his address did he provide any indication he might agree to demands to step down immediately.
“His speech was evidence to us that Saleh has no intention of transferring power in the coming period,” said Faizah Suleiman, a female protester leader from the youth coordinating council.
Saleh was confronted by further scenes of violence on Sunday, the second day after his surprise return from Saudi Arabia, as government troops under the command of his son Ahmed fired on unarmed protesters marching through the capital.
The latest round of bloodshed followed a week of violence in Sana’a in which more than 100 protesters were shot dead, some by government troops using anti-aircraft guns.
“I return to the nation carrying the dove of peace and the olive branch,” Saleh was quoted as saying by state television on Friday shortly after calling for a truce between battling troops. But this did not stem the violence.
At midday a crowd of 6 000 men and women marched out of the tented protest encampment dubbed Change Square and into the city”
As they marched deeper into the streets of Sana’a, a volley of bullets fired by Republican Guard troops dispersed the protesters, who fled back to their camp.
“We reached the roundabout and then a group of soldiers under the bridge just started shooting straight at us without warning — they were 10m away,” said Abulqawy Noman, a professor of chemistry at Sana’a University, as doctors in a field hospital held up an X-ray apparently showing an image of his calf with a bullet lodged below the knee.
“One of my friends was shot in the chest; he couldn’t speak, blood was pouring from his nostrils and his mouth.”
In addition to the professor, 17 others were shot, one in the forehead and another in the square of his back.
Outside the hospital gates a weeping muezzin gathered protesters for a mass prayer to mourn the death of 10 people on Friday, nine of them pro-opposition tribal fighters and one of them a journalist who died after being shot a few days earlier.
Men jostled for position in front of the line of bodies wrapped in flags and laid out in the sun.
Slipping out of control
Sana’a may be sliding out of government control. Many of the city’s neighbourhoods are now gripped by street battles and exchanges of shelling between Republican Guards led by Saleh’s son and a division of renegade soldiers known as firqa who have been backing the pro-democracy demonstrators.
Protesters are caught in the middle as both sides hurl mortars and anti-aircraft missiles at each other in a battle for the capital.
Saleh, who returned to Sana’a on Friday, was airlifted to Saudi Arabia in June for emergency treatment after a booby-trap explosion ripped through the mosque in his presidential compound.
His prolonged stay in Riyadh gave false hopes to some that he might step down and allow a peaceful transition of power.
Saudi princes and US diplomats are now scrambling to embrace a new political scenario with Saleh back in Yemen instead of having him cornered in a luxurious, marbled palace in Riyadh.
Despite Saleh’s return, many diplomats still hope that the strongman will accept a deal drawn up by the Gulf monarchies in April offering him and his family immunity from prosecution in return for him stepping down within three months.
He agreed three times to earlier drafts of the deal only to back out at the last minute.
Ali Mohsin, the wayward general whose troops are fighting the loyalists, lashed out at Saleh in a statement on Saturday calling him a “sick, vengeful soul” and comparing him to the Roman emperor Nero, wasting time as his city burns.
Mohsin, who once served as the president’s iron fist and has access to more than half of the country’s military resources and assets, defected to the opposition in March after 52 protesters were shot dead in a co-ordinated sniper attack.
Many in the anti-Saleh camp accuse both Riyadh and Washington of supporting Saleh, who had once been their ally against al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing.
They accuse the West of adopting double standards by supporting the pro-democracy uprising in Libya but not in Yemen.
“There are millions of us and only one of him,” said a female protester leader, Nura. “We ask the West and our neighbours in the Gulf to withdraws their support in order to stop the blood from running.”
Hospitals are struggling to find the floor space, let alone provide care, for the hundreds suffering from bullet wounds and gas inhalation.
Tariq Noman, a doctor working in a field hospital, said that people were dying because of a shortage of medical supplies.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has delivered wound-dressing material to the hospital but claims that it has had equipment confiscated and been denied access to people in need of first aid by government officials. – guardian.co.uk