— Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh unexpectedly and defiantly returned to the country Friday after more than three months in Saudi Arabia, a move that is likely to inflame tensions among rival forces that have transformed the capital and other cities into war zones.

By seeking to reinject himself into the heart of Yemen’s turbulent landscape, Saleh is going against the wishes of his key ally, the United States, and his Persian Gulf neighbors, who had hoped he would sign an agreement to transfer power while he recuperated in Saudi Arabia from injuries sustained in a June attack on his presidential compound.

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.

A senior U.S. official who was not authorized to publicly discuss the situation said the Arab leaders were as surprised and perplexed by Saleh’s return as Western governments, including the Obama administration, which had been urging the Yemeni president to accept the transition plan.

“If anyone knows what’s going on, it should be the Saudis,” the official said. But Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, “seemed to be as unclear on [Saleh’s] intentions as the rest of us.” While the Saudi government certainly would have been aware of Saleh’s departure, there was no indication it had advance notice of his plans, the official said.

State Department officials said their position is unchanged, and they continued to push for the GCC deal, which Saleh has backed out of on three occasions.

“We want to see Yemen move forward on the basis of the GCC proposal,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “Whether Saleh is in or out of the country, it’s important for him to sign the accord and move on.”

The White House also called on Saleh to transfer power and hold a presidential election by the end of the year. “The Yemeni people have suffered enough and deserve a path toward a better future,” said press secretary Jay Carney.

Ruling-party officials denied statements by Yemen’s political opposition that the GCC initiative was now dead.

“This initiative remains effective, and [Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour] Hadi will continue the dialogue to create a binding mechanism to implement the gulf initiative,” Yasser al-Yamani, a ruling-party official, told al-Jazeera television.

Violence continues

Saleh’s return followed five days of violence among rival militaries and tribesmen that has left more than 100 people dead and injured hundreds, according to hospital officials. Even as he landed on Friday, heavy fighting was reported in some areas of the capital, lasting throughout the day. Sporadic gunfire, including from heavy weaponry, erupted around the capital well into the night.

Early Saturday morning, hours after Saleh called for a ceasefire, protesters in Change Square, where tens of thousands are camped in tents to demand an end to Saleh’s rule, came under heavy fire from mortars and snipers. Activists alleged that goverment forces loyal to Saleh attacked the southern end of the encampment, sending hundreds fleeing. At least one person was killed and more than two dozen injured by sniper fire and shelling, said doctors at a makeshift hospital inside the square. The Associated Press, citing medics, reported that 16 people were killed in the attack on the camp.

There were also reports of clashes in the capital’s Hassabah district, where anti-government tribesmen have been battling government forces.

Earlier on Friday, thousands of Saleh’s loyalists celebrated his return, driving packed trucks through the capital, blasting celebratory music and shouting slogans of support. Many carried large portraits of Saleh. Thousands prayed at a gigantic multimillion-dollar mosque that Saleh built.

“We are all happy that he has returned safely to Yemen,” said Mohammed Amar al-Bowab, who carried a large portrait of Saleh. “Everything is going to be all right now. He will solve everything.”

Leaders of Yemen’s political opposition played down the significance of Saleh’s return, saying it would not alter their strategy or their will to remove him from office.

“Our revolution started when the president was in good health, and we are going to continue with our revolution until the fall of the regime,” said Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for the Joint Meeting Parties, the main coalition of opposition parties.

Some youth activist leaders, however, welcomed Saleh’s return, saying it would bring fresh momentum to their calls for him to step down and allow him to one day be tried for actions during his rule, including the killings of scores of protesters by government-backed snipers.

In Change Square, youth leaders gathered to organize an anti-Saleh demonstration. Some activists accused Saudi Arabia of helping Saleh to stall negotiators seeking a transfer of power.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to help us. They only want to help Ali Abdullah Saleh,” said Anisi, the activist. “Now that he is back in Yemen, it will encourage the revolutionaries to step up their demands. It will help us become stronger.”

It remains unclear why Saleh chose this moment to return to Yemen. Some Yemenis believe he was concerned that the escalating violence — the deadliest period since the uprising began in February — could spiral out of control and threaten his authority. Or perhaps he sensed an opportunity to enter Yemen as a unifying figure who can end the bloodshed, some said.

Barbara Bodoin, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said Saleh’s return, despite American pressure for him not to go back, was a characteristic move by a “cantankerously independent” politician.

“The more you told him not to go back, the more he would figure out a way to go back,” she said. “The Yemeni government often does things in opposition to what they’re told to do.”

Others speculated that, pressured by the United States and Saudi Arabia, he had struck a deal to step down in the near future. Before his call for the cease-fire, rumors even floated throughout Friday that he might announce his resignation.

Most, though, viewed it as his latest tactic to remain in power — or at least step down according to his own terms. Saleh’s rivals widely considered his call for a cease-fire as an effort to regroup his forces for a future assault.

“He has come back now with the intention of revenge,” said Abdul Qawi al-Qaisi, a spokesman for the powerful Ahmar clan. “And this will widen the violence in different provinces.”

DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondent Ali Almujahed in Sanaa and staff writers Greg Miller and Alice Fordham in Washington contributed to this report.