Yemen braces for rival rallies

AFP and Reuters, Friday 10 Jun 2011

Yemeni President Saleh's opponents gather in Sanaa to push for transfer of power to a presidential council while his supporters celebrate his recovery

Anti-government protestors spray foam and wave their national flags as they celebrate President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday, (AP).

Pro- and anti-regime activists in Yemen began gathering for fresh rallies Friday as state media said the country's president was out of intensive care in Riyadh after treatment for bomb blast wounds.

Protesters opposing President Ali Abdullah Saleh and who want to replace him with an interim ruling council started to mass at Sanaa's University Square, now dubbed "Change Square" and nearby Sittin Street to push for a quick transition of power.

Yemenis loyal to the embattled leader were meanwhile gathering a few kilometres (miles) away at Sabbeen Square to celebrate after state media told them that Saleh was recovering quickly and out of intensive care at a Saudi hospital.

Saleh's troops on Thursday killed two anti-government gunmen in the southern protest hub of Taez.

And fighting intensified in the southern town of Zinjibar, held by suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen since last month.

Saleh has not been seen in public since he was wounded in a bomb attack on his presidential compound on Friday last week and there have been conflicting reports about his health since he was flown to Riyadh the following day for treatment.

The attack itself was an assassination bid, likely an "inside job" using an explosive device, not a mortar or shells as initially reported, US experts said Thursday.

STRATFOR, a US-based authority on strategic and tactical intelligence issues, said it had based its assessment on an evaluation of photographs taken of the blast site, a mosque inside Saleh's presidential compound in Sanaa.

A Saudi official said the 69-year-old Yemeni president's health was "stable" and was waiting for doctors to fix a date for cosmetic surgery. Saleh would undergo an operation to treat "light burns on the scalp", he said, dismissing as "baseless" reports that his health had deteriorated.

Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi also insisted Saleh was in good condition and would return to Yemen within days.

But as Saleh recovers, his opponents have been pressing his deputy to establish an interim ruling council to prevent him from returning to power.

Mohammed al-Mutawakkil of the coalition of opposition parties said the opposition had informed Saleh's ruling General People's Congress party on Wednesday that it would seek to establish its own transitional assembly after one week if action was not taken on transferring power to his deputy, Ab-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was named acting president on 4 June.

"More important than Saleh's return is that the ruling party transfers power and begins implementing the Gulf initiative," he said, referring to a Gulf Arab plan for Saleh to begin a power transfer which stalled in the days before he was wounded.

Political analyst Ali Seif Hassan said he was not convinced by state media reports that Saleh was about to come back but said that his return could help cement a new order.

"I'm not worried if he comes back since the important thing is that he signs an agreement to transfer power, whether he does that in Sanaa or Riyadh," he said.

Saleh has come under mounting international pressure to quit as five months of protests have drawn powerful tribes into the conflict, sparking deadly fighting with loyalist security forces on the streets of Sanaa.

And the United States has warned that the turmoil in Osama bin Laden's ancestral homeland is playing into the hands of Al-Qaeda. Saleh's government has been a key partner in the US 'war on terror", while always denying having allowed US strikes on its soil, insisting its own forces carried out the operations.

In Washington, CIA chief Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that US counterterrorism operations against extremists in Yemen, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), were continuing.

"While obviously it's a scary and uncertain situation, with regards to counterterrorism we're still very much continuing our operations," Panetta, whom Obama has nominated to be the next defence secretary, said Thursday.

Meanwhile, tension continued in the south as loyal troops pushed to regain control of the city of Zinjibar, held by suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen since late May.
Government officials say most of Zinjibar is in the hands of the jihadists but the opposition accuses Saleh of exaggerating the Al-Qaeda threat in a desperate bid to ease foreign pressure on his 33-year rule.

In the city of Taez, south of Sanaa, meanwhile, troops killed two members of the "Eagles of Liberty", a local militia that sided with protesters.
Vigilante committees of locals and tribesmen had been deployed around most of Taez, Yemen's second-largest city, after security forces retreated to their bases following clashes. Security forces killed more than 50 protesters, according to UN figures, in a May 30 crackdown on an anti-regime sit-in at Freedom Square in the flashpoint city.

A British minister said on Thursday in Abu Dhabi that Saleh's absence abroad left room to push for a transition of power, as proposed by Yemen's Arab neighbours in the Gulf.

"We know that the president was badly hurt in the explosion," said Alistair Burt, Britain's under-secretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
"Our sense is that this provides an opportunity" for a Gulf initiative for Saleh to stand down in return for immunity from prosecution, he said.

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