Competing Yemen rallies show national divide

AHMED AL-HAJ - Associated Press,BEN HUBBARD - Associated Press
AP
In this video image taken from a prerecorded video and broadcast Thursday July 7, 2011 on Yemen state TV from Saudi Arabia, Yemen's embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh lashed out  at opponents seeking to drive him from power in his first public appearance since he was injured last month in a blast at his palace compound. Sitting rigid in a chair, his hair covered with a cloth and his hands wrapped in white bandages, Ali Abdullah Saleh accused "terrorist elements" of carrying out the June 3 attack and criticized his opponents for trying to topple him. He wore a white robe and his face appeared noticeable darker than before the attack.  (AP Photo/Yemen state TV)  NO ACCESS YEMEN
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In this video image taken from a prerecorded video and broadcast Thursday July 7, 2011 on Yemen state TV from Saudi Arabia, Yemen's embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh lashed out at opponents seeking to drive him from power in his first public appearance since he was injured last month in a blast at his palace compound. Sitting rigid in a chair, his hair covered with a cloth and his hands wrapped in white bandages, Ali Abdullah Saleh accused "terrorist elements" of carrying out the June 3 attack and criticized his opponents for trying to topple him. He wore a white robe and his face appeared noticeable darker than before the attack. (AP Photo/Yemen state TV) NO ACCESS YEMEN

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Supporters and opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged competing marches in Yemen's capital Friday, a day after his first TV appearance in a month, highlighting the deep political rift that could tear apart this impoverished, gun-ridden nation.

Saleh appeared on state TV late Thursday, a first since flying to Saudi Arabia a month ago to treat wounds sustained in an attack on his palace. The video showed the leader with casts on his arms and visibly weakened after a series of operations, reinforcing speculation that he won't return to Yemen soon.

Saleh did not say if or when he plans to return, adding a new twist to a five-month-old rebellion seeking to topple his authoritarian regime.

The uprising has battered Yemen's economy and destabilized the Arab world's poorest nation, which is also home to one of al-Qaida's most active branches. The U.S. and others worry al-Qaida could exploit chaos in Yemen to expand its bases in Yemen's weakly governed provinces.

Saleh backers responded to the video by firing guns in the air in celebration, and at least 11 people died from gunshot wounds across Yemen. In the capital Sanaa, thousands of Saleh supporters rallied outside his palace Friday, bearing large photos of the leader and the Saudi monarch, thanking him for hosting Saleh.

Much larger crowds filled squares across Yemen, including the university square in Sanaa not far from Saleh's palace, indicating that the footage of the injured Salah could deepen the country's divide instead of paving the way for a the political transition sought by the opposition, Yemen's Gulf Arab neighbors and the West.

"Different audiences interpreted it (the video) different ways," said Yemen expert Christopher Boucek at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In releasing the video, the regime could be sending a message that it is digging in and that Saleh won't leave despite his wounds, he said. "Others probably look and say, he's really wounded. How can he govern?"

Saleh's ability to retain power, despite the ongoing uprising and his absence from Yemen for the past month shows the resilience of his regime, Boucek said. Saleh has installed his sons, other relatives and childhood friends in key positions in the government and security services.

Saleh was injured in an attack on his compound and flew to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment on June 5 after issuing a brief audio address on Yemen state TV. His absence from the public eye fueled speculation about the severity of his wounds and whether he would return.

In Thursday's video, Saleh, in his late 60s, sat stiffly in an armchair with casts on his arms and said he'd had more than eight operations.

Saleh made no mention of the U.S.-backed plan proposed by Yemen's powerful Gulf neighbors that would see him stand down in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Saleh has repeatedly refused to sign the initiative.

Gunfire rang out in cities across Yemen when he appeared on TV and continued through the night Thursday.

Hospital officials said five people died from gunshots in Sanaa, along with four in the town of Ibb and at least two others elsewhere. Most of the shooting was in celebration of Saleh's appearance, but it was unclear if all the deaths were accidental.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

In the restive Abyan province in southern Yemen, government troops have been battling al-Qaida-linked militants who have seized control of two cities there. Since late March, at least 70 soldiers and 50 militants have been killed in fighting in Abyan, according to a statement Friday by Yemen's embassy in the U.S. More than 300 soldiers and dozens of militants have been wounded, the statement said.

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Hubbard reported from Cairo.