Yemen's president on TV looks worn from bombing ordeal

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 7, 2011 

Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh talks to press after his meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 12, 2010. (Ammar Abd Rabbo/Abaca Press/MCT)

AMMAR ABD RABBO / ABACA PRESS / MCT

SANAA, Yemen — For the first time since he was gravely wounded by an explosion in the presidential compound's mosque, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared on television here Thursday, recognizable but obviously still recovering from major injuries.

Instead of his usual suit and tie, the president wore a flowing Arab shirt dress known as a thobe and kept his head covered with a traditional head scarf, possibly to hide the serious burns he's rumored to have suffered. His complexion appeared significantly darker than before the June 3 attack, and his prominent moustache was gone, replaced with a ragged, stubbly beard. His hands and arms were covered with bandages, and he sat rigidly as he spoke. His voice was weak and his breathing labored.

He acknowledged that he'd undergone eight operations since he was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment and that many top officials of his government — including the speaker of parliament, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister and the governor of Sanaa — had been injured in the attack.

But he gave no hint that he intended to step down from office, something protesters have demanded in huge demonstrations that began in February, and he sounded defiant as he criticized the protesters as "misunderstanding democracy."

He didn't directly address his plans for returning to Yemen.

"Where are the conscientious people? Where are the honest people? Where are the believers and the men who fear Allah? Why don't they stand with dialogue?" he said, apparently referring to his political opponents and his calls for more talks on a political resolution to the conflict.

As the taped speech aired, the sky and streets of Sanaa erupted with fireworks and celebratory gunfire, as Saleh's supporters gathered to celebrate his video appearance. For most of his enthusiastic backers, his grave appearance was irrelevant. The video appearance, they said, was proof that the president's return to Yemen was imminent.

"All of Yemen is happy to see for certain that our president is fine," said Mohamed al Ghaithy, a shopkeeper, as the sounds of celebrations echoed in the background. Treating Saleh's return as a foregone conclusion, he gestured to the festivities echoing throughout the city.

"This is nothing compared to what will happen when he returns," he said.

Opponents found little to cheer in the speech.

"It doesn't really change anything," said Hamid Moqbil Nasr, a professor at Sanaa University who's active in the anti-government movement. "The fact remains that Yemen's crises will not end until we see true political change."

Saleh's appearance came after weeks of speculation about his condition and the attack, which struck the presidential mosque as Saleh and other government notables were praying.

Immediately after the explosion, Saleh supporters blamed armed political opposition groups who were said to have targeted the building with artillery or mortars. But officials have since suggested that the explosion was caused by a bomb planted in the mosque, and the identities of the attackers remain the subject of speculation. On Thursday, Saleh referred to them as "terrorist elements."

Officials also have said little about the extent of Saleh's injuries, which they initially described as minor.

Saleh's departure for treatment in Saudi Arabia initially was greeted with celebrations, as many Yemenis assumed that his travel would be the precursor to a power transfer and the end of the political crisis.

But the situation remains ambiguous. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi constitutionally took the powers of the presidency in Saleh's absence, but powerful relatives of the president continue to control many arms of the state, as government officials continue to assert publicly that he'll soon return to the powers of the presidency.

While Sanaa has remained calm since Saleh's departure, conflict has continued to swirl south of the capital, particularly in the city of Taiz, a hotbed of anti-government activity, and the province of Abyan, which has witnessed weeks of clashes between government forces and armed Islamist extremists.

Simultaneously, months of insecurity, coupled with a severe gas shortage, have pushed Yemen's already weak economy to the edge. Many international aid organizations have described the country as on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Yemen is already among the poorest nations in the region.

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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Yemen's Saleh wounded in attack on presidential compound

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