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Yemen's Saleh calls for early elections, violence goes

Sep 25, 2011, 2:33 p.m.
A still image taken from video shows Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaking during his first televised speech since he returned to Yemen after more than three months in Saudi Arabia, September 25, 2011. REUTERS/Yemen TV via Reuters TV

By Erika Solomon and Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh made no pledge on Sunday to step down in his first address to the nation since returning home, calling for early elections in a move that is unlikely to appease protesters demanding his immediate departure.

Saleh, speaking after the sixth day of a wave of violence in which more than 100 people have been killed, said in his speech he was committed to transferring power through elections.

But since the crisis began in January when protesters took to the streets demanding that he quit, the embattled president has made numerous proposals to end the violence but followed up on none that entail him surrendering power.

Protesters accuse Saleh, his family and the government of widespread corruption and failing to address crippling poverty and lawlessness in a land where one in two people owns a gun.

Saleh, who returned on Friday from Saudi Arabia where he sought treatment after a June assassination attempt, reiterated his acceptance of a Gulf-proposed power transfer and said the vice-president retained authority to talk to the opposition.

"Let's all go toward dialogue, understanding and peaceful exchange of power through elections and early presidential elections," he said in the televised speech.

A traditional checkered Arab headscarf was wrapped around Saleh's head and neck and an elaborate flower arrangement hid his hands, possibly to disguise the burns he sustained in the bombing of his presidential compound.

Protesters, huddled around television sets in the ramshackle tents of their large encampment in central Sanaa, shouted "Boo! Leave!" in disappointment at his remarks, which were similar to earlier speeches.

"We're so used to this speech, there's nothing new in it. He talks to us as if we're children," said 30-year-old protester Saeed as he stared blankly at the screen. "He's just talking and talking about this initiative but we haven't seen any action."

Shortly after Saleh's speech, the sky over Sanaa was peppered with bursts of fireworks and red embers from shots fired into the air by presidential supporters cheering "The people want Ali Abdullah Saleh!"

One protester pointed to the sky and said: "See, that is the dialogue that Saleh wants."

Saleh, 69, who has long portrayed himself as a bulwark against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, accused protesters of working with the group and said investigations would uncover who was behind the bomb attempt on his life.

"The attack on him is still too much in his mind and his speech," said Ali Seif Hassan, a political analyst. "Revenge will be the title of the act now."

Protesters have grown even more wary of Saleh's intentions since some 17 people were killed on Saturday when government forces attacked their camp in Sanaa, according to witnesses and medics.

"This man just won't let go of power ... he's taunting us," said teacher Qassim al-Rumeity, 27, standing in a crowd of protesters shouting "The people want the fall of the murderer."

SLIDE TOWARD ANARCHY

Analysts fear the unruly Arabian Peninsula state is sliding further into a state of anarchy that could embolden the al Qaeda wing based there and endanger Western interests in the Gulf and oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.

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