US tells Yemen's opposition that Saleh will return soon

Ruling party sets president's date for Sunday as opposition chief warns of major escalation in protests and president's son is seen as major obstacle to power transfer.

Anti-government protesters shout slogans as they march under a large Yemeni flag during a demonstration to demand the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz yesterday. Khaled Abdullah / Teuters
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SANAA // Opposition leaders in Yemen reacted angrily after US officials informed them that President Ali Abdullah Saleh will be heading back to Yemen "soon".

The main opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), and the pro-democracy youth movement blamed Washington for the president's possible return from Saudi Arabia, where he has been recovering from an assassination attempt last month.

US president Barack Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, informed the JMP on Tuesday that Mr Saleh's health was improving and that he intended to return to Yemen despite previous calls from the US for him to stand down.

Ruling party officials said they expected Mr Saleh to be back in Yemen on Sunday, July 17 - the 33rd anniversary of his rise to power.

The US now stands accused of not doing enough to pressure Mr Saleh to stand down, a key demand of the opposition, which has staged massive pro-democracy protests since January.

At Tuesday's meeting in the US embassy in Sanaa, Mr Brennan made clear to the opposition that there was a limit to how much the US government could push for a transfer of power.

Abu Bakr Ba Theeb, the acting president of the JMP, said the opposition was shocked at the news, and blamed Washington for not putting enough pressure on Mr Saleh.

"We did not expect Washington's stance to be so weak," said Mr Ba Theeb. He said that the president's return to Yemen would result in a major escalation from opposition forces although he did not give any more details.

Leaders of the revolutionary youth said the US ambassador in Sanaa lied to them in April when he promised his country's backing if Mr Saleh did not leave power within a month.

"It is has been three months since the ambassador's promise and Saleh is still in power. The US is stabbing the youth in the back and the youth will not forget this US stance," said one of the leaders who met with the US ambassador in April and asked to remain anonymous.

While the JMP and the revolutionary youth organising committee are both calling for Mr Saleh to step down, the youth want to go further and remove current ruling party members from any future involvement in politics.

Attempts to contact US embassy officials were unsuccessful.

As the possible return of Mr Saleh looms over the country, there have been claims that Mr Saleh wants to be back in Yemen to ensure his family get their share of power even if he is no longer in charge.

The ruling party said that Washington needed the ruling family more than anyone else, and that it was a risk for America to hand over rule in Yemen to the opposition.

"The US do not want to hand over the rule of Yemen to the Islamist party," said Zaid Thari, a political adviser to Mr Saleh's General People's Congress party. "The ruling family is their [Washington's] only assured backup plan if things go wrong in Yemen with the pro-Islamic opposition."

An aide of the ruling family said Mr Saleh's son, General Ahmed Ali Saleh, was able to convince Mr Brennan during his two-day visit, that even if Mr Saleh stood down, the ruling family should continue to be in charge of counterterrorism.

Gen Ali informed Mr Brennan that Al Qaeda would flourish in Yemen if his father left office, the aide said. "A complete change in the security sector during these critical times will surely work in the favour of Al Qaeda and against the US interests in the region," the aide said, referring to what Gen Ali told US officials.

Mr Thari said Mr Brennan had been warned that Gen Ali stood as an obstacle to a power transfer and that is why he had decided to meet him. "Ahmed still controls the core of the country's military might and the US needed his approval for power transfer," Mr Thari said.

The General People's Congress party is considering the option of allowing Gen Ali to lead the party if Mr Saleh decides to step down.

"Gen Ahmed [Ali] is respected in the ruling party and the majority of the party would welcome him taking over the party after his father," said Abdullah Shaban, a close aide of the general.

"We have no doubt that General Ahmed Ali will run for presidency in the next elections," he added.

Mr Brennan called on all parties to participate to "immediately implement a transition that serves the aspirations of the Yemeni people", said a statement on the US embassy in Sanaa's website on Tuesday.

The US, which has relied on Mr Saleh's support for their counterterrorism policy, worry that Al Qaeda could exploit chaos in Yemen to step up operations there.

Mr Saleh has been receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia since June 4 when he was injured by an explosion inside the presidential palace.