The United States and Saudi Arabia were widely believed to have urged Saleh not to go back to Yemen before such a deal, which they view as the best hope to prevent the country from hurtling toward civil war and destabilizing the region. U.S. officials have long been concerned about al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, which has attempted two attacks in the United States since December 2009.
Instead, Saleh’s return at dawn Friday in a private plane was followed later in the day by a call for a cease-fire so negotiations can be held.
“The solution is not in the mouths of rifles and guns, it is in dialogue and stopping bloodshed,” the official state news agency quoted him as saying.
Saleh is expected to give a speech to the nation Sunday.
His comments suggested that he would probably not step down from power immediately, a move that will likely anger anti-government military and tribal leaders, as well as youth activists who have protested for eight months to end his 33-year rule.
“He has come back to lead the battle himself,” said Khaled al-
Anisi, an activist. “This is a project of war.”
While some U.S. officials characterized Saleh’s return as a setback, others were hopeful it would still lead to a negotiated transfer of power. The Obama administration has feared that the political crisis could bolster al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, allowing it to exploit the growing lawlessness here and enhance its ability to target the West. Al-Qaeda-linked militants took over parts of Yemen’s south after Saleh’s departure.
Still, U.S. officials said they did not expect any disruption in counterterrorism cooperation, namely Yemeni security agencies’ intelligence-sharing with the CIA and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command officials behind a series of recent drone and conventional strikes against al-Qaeda operatives. Saleh, the U.S. officials added, will be focused on consolidating his power now that he is back in the capital, and there is little reason to expect that he would curtail cooperation with the United States against a common foe — militant groups with links to al-Qaeda.
Saleh’s intentions unclear
The developments Friday set off a frenetic round of high-level diplomatic meetings that brought few conclusions about Saleh’s intentions or how to proceed with international efforts to push him from power. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met with ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the six-member group of Persian Gulf states that crafted a power-
transfer deal for Yemen, in New York outside the U.N. General Assembly.