Yemen's President Saleh addresses nation for first time since return

SANAA, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh addressed the Yemeni people Sunday for the first time since returning to the increasingly volatile nation, calling for direct elections but not making any direct pledge to step down.

The embattled president, who has been the target of more than six months of anti-government demonstrations, has been loath to transfer power. He has backed away from inking a power-transfer deal at least three times, even though leading ruling party and opposition politicians signed it in late May.

Addressing the nation seated behind a desk, Saleh seemed to be in good health, though his head and neck were covered in what appeared to be an attempt to conceal injuries he suffered in a bomb attack on his compound in early June.

Saleh's return after nearly four months of recuperation in Saudi Arabia comes amid an escalation of violence in the Yemeni capital. For months, parts of the capital, Sanaa, have been under the control of troops that have defected and dissident tribesmen.

Last week, an attack on a protest march ignited fierce clashes between government forces and their armed opponents. More than 150 people have been killed over the past week, including dozens of civilians and unarmed demonstrators.

Saleh reiterated support for an internationally backed Gulf Cooperation Council-mediated power transfer initiative that offers the president legal immunity in exchange for his resignation. He added that despite his return to Sanaa, his deputy, Vice President Abdelrab Mansour al Hadi, is still authorized to lead negotiations with the political opposition on his behalf.

The speech presented little that was new. Saleh offered vague commitments to a political dialogue and transfer of power. Keeping a calm tone, he hit out at his opponents, dismissing them as power-hungry opportunists and tying them to al Qaida.

"This bloodbath will not get you power," he said, blaming his adversaries for the current spate of violence.

After the speech, the president's supporters celebrated his video appearance with fireworks and gunfire.

Across the city, Yemenis massed in Change Square, a sprawling sit-in that's been the center of anti-government demonstrations for months. Those gathered dismissed Saleh's remarks as mere posturing, reiterating their calls for the president's immediate resignation.

"We can listen to his words, but the government's actions make a stronger point," said Nader al Qirshi, a leading youth activist. "We refuse to deal with someone who's regime has slaughtered us."

Upon his arrival on Friday, government-run media quoted Saleh as saying that he returned to Yemen "holding a dove and carrying an olive branch."

Yet violence continued. At least 17 demonstrators were killed in a midnight attack on the protest camp that occurred the night after Saleh's return.

The capital remained on edge, and many fear that the return of the fierce urban warfare of the past week is inevitable. The impoverished nation's economy is on the brink of collapse, and a seeming power vacuum has threatened to empowered Yemen-based militants.

Since his return, Western and Arab governments have called on Saleh to step down, fearing that the man they once saw a force for stability in Yemen could push the nation to civil war.

Months of international efforts to push the nation's political impasse to resolution have failed.

"It is still possible for the international community to push a power transfer process forward," said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton-based Yemen analyst. "But it would require the United States and Saudi Arabian governments to work in close cooperation, and, for now, it's hard to imagine that happening."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)