Yemen's President Returns Months After Attack

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has returned to the country after more than three months in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He had left Yemen after being seriously injured in a rocket attack. The country has faced turmoil in recent months as anti-government demonstrators called for the ouster of Saleh. Freelance journalist Tom Finn talks to Steve Inskeep about Saleh's return.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We know for certain that the president of Yemen has returned home today. What we do not know is why, or what he'll do next. Ali Abdullah Saleh had been in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment for weeks. Few expected him to show up again in the country where he'd faced protests for months. But when he returned to a capital city torn with fighting today, reporter Tom Finn said some people welcomed him with celebratory gunfire.

TOM FINN: Saleh has returned and now the noise you can her in the background are these pro-Saleh forces. They're waving their daggers(ph) in the air and shouting, Yeah, Ali, yeah, Ali. So I mean, yeah, so that's the situation we find ourselves in, but obviously it's an incredibly dangerous time to return. We've had these four days of clashes between renegade troops and the Republican Guard. And it's hard to understand exactly what the motive is, returning at this time. But nevertheless, you know, as you can hear yourself, there are lots of people who still support the president. And you may be able to hear the gunfire that's just started again in the background.

INSKEEP: That was reporter Tom Finn on this program earlier this morning. A short time ago we called Mr. Finn back as anti-government protesters and the outside world tried to understand what the president is doing.

FINN: When he left, lots of analysts were saying that Saudi Arabia would make sure that Saleh did not return to Yemen. Both Saudia Arabia and the U.S. and other Gulf countries had been pushing for Saleh to step down at that time, and it was presumed that they would reach some sort of an agreement whereby he wouldn't be allowed to return and Yemen would be able to press on with this long-needed political(ph) transition.

But clearly that's not ? has not been the case. And I was speaking to Western diplomats in Sanaa this morning who just had absolutely no idea that he was coming back.

INSKEEP: Well, what has the president said, if anything, about what he's doing there?

FINN: Well, we've had one brief statement from the president, which came via the Ministry of Defense, which was essentially a call from the president for a ceasefire and some more dialogue. Now, as I said, we've had these clashes between these two different(ph) factions of the military. Whether or not they'll heed his call for a ceasefire is another matter altogether. And to be quite frank, President Saleh has been calling for negotiations and for dialogue since the last eight(ph) months ? he hasn't gone(ph) anywhere in Yemen.

INSKEEP: Now, an analyst who was on this program earlier in the week suggested there weren't just two sides in Yemen but maybe as many as five. Is it clear how many of the various factions are even on the president's side at this point?

FINN: No, that's a very good point, and actually I've been speaking with the ? some of the members of the U.N. who are here at the moment trying to negotiate some sort of ceasefire, and they continuously remind me how difficult it is to operate in Yemen with so many different political factions. You've got the defected troops under Ari Mossen(ph), who have been protecting protesters. Then you've got the protesters themselves, who are tens of thousands of, you know, of young men and women, some of whom are aligned with the political opposition, some of whom are completely independent.

And then of course you've also got the military chiefs, the tribal chiefs in Yemen, and the big fear now is that Saleh returning will suck these tribal chiefs back into the conflict.

INSKEEP: Mr. Finn, I don't want to ask you to speculate about what's in the mind of the president at this unpredictable point, but just thinking about human nature, it's a little hard to believe that he would return to his country, with all the dangers that entails, simply to quit his job. You would presume that if he was coming back, he intends to rule, he intends to do something.

FINN: Well, I mean, as I said, we're still at the stage of speculation now, and I've been talking to as many Yemeni analysts as I can. One of them who I spoke to this morning said that this was a characteristic Saleh move. You know, he's a mercurial president. He's never been a predictable president.

INSKEEP: Freelance journalist Tom Finn is in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, to which the president has returned today. Thanks very much.

FINN: Thank you.

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