US pushes for Yemen solution as Saleh vows return

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — With the wounded president out of Yemen, the United States and Saudi Arabia scrambled Monday to arrange a power transfer ensuring an end to his decades-long rule. But a top official said President Ali Abdullah Saleh, recovering in Saudi Arabia, would return home within days, a step almost certain to re-ignite violence.

A return by Saleh would likely spark new, intensified fighting between his forces and opposition tribesmen determined to topple him. Both sides’ fighters are deployed in the streets of the capital, and a cease-fire brokered by Saudi Arabia only a day earlier was already starting to fray, with clashes killing at least six.

Saleh was rushed late Saturday to the Saudi capital for treatment after being wounded in a rocket attack on his palace amid two weeks of fighting in Sanaa. His departure raised cheers from protesters who have been turning out in the streets by the hundreds of thousands since February demanding his ouster. To them, it seemed inevitable he would be unable to come back.

But Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is acting leader in the president’s absence, told European ambassadors Monday, “Saleh’s health is improving greatly and he will return to the country in the coming days,” the state news agency reported. Saleh underwent surgery to remove shards of wood from his chest and treat heavy burns on his face and chest.

A renewal of fighting could push the impoverished nation into outright civil war. The United States fears that al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen could exploit the turmoil to strengthen its presence in the country, which it has already used as a base for plotting two attempted anti-U.S. attacks.

“We are calling for a peaceful and orderly transition, a nonviolent transition that is consistent with Yemen’s own constitution,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “We think an immediate transition is in the best interests of the Yemeni people.”

Furious diplomatic efforts were underway involving the Saudis, the United States, the Yemenis and Gulf Arab nations to work out a transfer of power, a U.S. official said. He likened the complex process to “four-dimensional chess.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The focus is on reviving a U.S.-backed deal mediated earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of Gulf Arab nations including Saudi Arabia. Under the deal, Saleh would retire, handing power to his vice president, a unity government between his party and the opposition would be formed and presidential elections held within two weeks.

In the past weeks, Saleh refused three times to sign the deal. As he was being evacuated for surgery over the weekend, he defied heavy Saudi pressure and refused to even sign a presidential decree formally transferring his authorities to Hadi, a sign he was intent on coming back.

Saudi Arabia on Monday pressed Saleh to sign now. After a Cabinet meeting headed by King Abdullah, the Saudi government expressed its “hope that the initiative be signed ... to get Yemen through the crisis, preserving its security, stability and unity.”

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