Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent shock waves through Yemen today by returning home unannounced after spending more than three months in Saudi Arabia, where he was recovering from an attack on his palace that left him badly burned. The development comes as Yemen faces some of its worst violence in months, after anti-government protesters escalated their demonstrations on Sunday and security forces fired back, prompting heavy fighting between army defectors, government troops, and protesters. That backdrop has analysts worrying today whether Saleh's return could spark civil war--a concern frequently invoked during the eight-month uprising. Saleh's supporters greeted the news with celebratory gunfire and fireworks, while Al Jazeera is reporting that anti-government protests have erupted in 17 of 21 provinces, with almost one million protesters taking to the streets in the capital, Sanaa.
While rumors are swirling this morning that Saleh may be poised to resign, but The Guardian's Brian Whitaker thinks the speculation may "simply be a ruse aimed at quietening things down." He notes that "a straightforward, clean-cut resignation would be very much out of character" for Saleh and that the longtime Yemeni leader fears exposing himself to prosecution. Indeed, in his first statement today, Saleh called for a ceasefire and negotiations, not a power transfer. Analysts tell Reuters that Saudi Arabia wouldn't have allowed Saleh to return to Yemen unless a deal to end the unrest--which has so far proven elusive--was likely.
The comments from Yemenis today highlight the precarious divisions and mixed feelings that prevail in the country. "I'm actually glad he's back--better that we have the regime here to topple," one protester tells Reuters. A pro-Saleh doorman, meanwhile, expresses his excitement to the news agency. "He is an honorable and great man. I know he's coming to stop this terrible violence." One cab driver tells freelance journalist Tom Finn, "It's fine, he'll be gone soon, he just came to pick up his money."
One of the most interesting aspects of Saleh's return is that state TV announced the news without showing any live footage of him. Instead, it aired archived footage of Saleh at public events along with images of fireworks and patriotic songs. Here's an AP report on state TV's coverage:
Euronews has additional footage of a battle-ravaged Sanaa: