SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Sunday made no pledge to step down immediately in his first public address since abruptly returning to Yemen, but he called for early elections and declared that he was still committed to an internationally backed plan to transfer power.
“Let’s all move towards dialogue, understanding and peaceful exchange of power through election boxes and early presidential elections,” he said in the 20-minute broadcast speech, which was defiant at some moments and conciliatory at others.
His comments, though, broke little new ground and are unlikely to appease the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have waged an eight-month populist uprising to end his 33-year tenure and seek his immediate resignation. Saleh, earlier this year, made similar calls for early elections and promised to sign a power transfer agreement crafted by Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors, which the United States and the international community view as the best hope for a peaceful political transition in this Middle Eastern nation teetering on the edge of civil war. Three times, Saleh backed out of signing the deal.
“The general perception from everyone here is that it’s well known that he goes against whatever he says,” said Waleed Sabrah, an activist who was in Change Square, an encampment in the capital near Sanaa University that is the focal point of the uprising. “He was talking about dialogue, but they knew he is getting ready for war. . . . I don’t take him sincerely. I believe his statement is a call for war.”
Saleh’s speech came as a sixth day of violence broke out in the capital, as government forces opened fire on protesters, wounding at least 18. The death toll over the past week has risen to more than 150, escalating tensions between Saleh and his influential rivals who command their own armies and militias.
In his speech, Saleh branded his foes as power-hungry “terrorists” and blamed them for the violence, stoking concerns that he might retaliate for an attempt to assassinate him in June. He declared that his opponents were only interested “in seizing power, looting the wealth of the country, undermining stability and terrorizing citizens.” He also accused his rivals of aiding al-Qaeda militants with information, financial and military support. His foes, in turn, have alleged that Saleh has allowed al-Qaeda militants free reign to trigger fears in the West and convince it that Yemen needs him at the helm.
Saleh’s comments appeared directed as much to boost the morale of his supporters and show his authority after an absence of more than three months. He also turned his attention to the youth activists, saying they were being manipulated by his rivals for their own political interests. “Brother Youths, you are nothing but victims. They throw you into the holocausts,” Saleh said.
Saleh returned Friday from Saudi Arabia where he received medical treatment for severe injuries sustained in the June attack on his presidential compound. He wore a tribal headdress and a long-sleeved traditional garment, while surrounded by an elaborate flower arrangement, apparently intended to hide any scars on his body. He appeared to be in good health.
Saleh returned to Yemen despite efforts by U.S. and Arab diplomats to prevent him from doing so and to end his rule. The Obama administration and the European Union have condemned the recent violence and have urged him to adopt the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, which spells out the transition of power. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah also called in published remarks for the adoption of the plan.
“We call on all sides to show self restraint and reason to prevent the risk of Yemen sliding into more violence and fighting," Abdullah said. “We believe that the Gulf initiative is still the only way out of the Yemeni crisis.”
Under the plan, Saleh would have to step down first before the country could stage early elections. In his speech, Saleh said “we are committed to the GCC initiative as it is,” and that Vice President Abdu Raboo Mansour Al Hadi was still authorized to hold talks with the opposition to implement the plan.
The Obama administration is concerned that Yemen’s turmoil could create a safe haven for al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, which has twice targeted U.S. soil since December 2009. Al-Qaeda-linked militants this year have taken parts of the country’s south, taking advantage of the power vacuum and instability.
After Sunday’s speech, Saleh’s supporters lit the night sky with heavy celebratory gunfire and fireworks for nearly an hour.
“That’s the dialogue, that’s the elections,” said the activist Sabrah, referring to the bullets flying in the air. “They want to count bullets. Whoever with the most bullets wins the elections.”
Special correspondent Ali Almujahed in Sanaa contributed to this report.