Saleh avoids pledge to step down now as he addresses Yemen

Yemen’s defiant president addressed his troubled nation for the first time since returning to the country after an assassination attempt, making no promise to step down immediately but saying he is committed to a deal to end months of spiralling violence.

Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared in improved health after nearly four months of treatment in neighbouring Saudi Arabia for severe burns and other injuries he suffered in a June 3 attack on his compound in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

Saleh abruptly returned on Friday, and a week of renewed clashes with his opponents intensified, littering the streets of the capital with bodies.

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“The crisis is big. You who are chasing power, let’s all go to the ballot boxes,” Saleh said, speaking to his opponents.

Yemen’s autocratic ruler of 33 years is under tremendous pressure from street protesters and neighbouring Arab nations to transfer power to end the country’s deepening crisis, which has killed hundreds since anti-government demonstrations began in February, ignited by the unrest sweeping the Arab world.

He has signalled an intention several times to sign a US-backed deal to step aside in exchange for immunity from prosecution only to back out at the last minute.

In yesterday’s televised address, he said he was committed to the deal, which was drafted by an alliance of Gulf nations that includes powerful Saudi Arabia. His opponents, however, believe he is stalling for time.

Saleh has tasked his vice president with overseeing negotiations on the deal, but at no point in his address did he provide any indication he might agree to demands to step down immediately.

Opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri said: “Saleh gave a speech full of contradictions.

“There are very clear demands for Saleh: cease violence, quickly transfer power and sign the deal.”

Over the past week, Saleh’s forces have unleashed heavy shelling on renegade army troops and protesters who have held a sit-in since February at a plaza in the capital they dubbed Change Square.

Around 150 people have been killed in the renewed fighting.

Meanwhile anti-government tribesmen have overrun a base of the loyalist Republican Guards north of the capital.

The Defence Ministry said the base’s commander was killed in the fighting.

Officials said the tribesmen captured 30 guards when they seized control of the base at Dahrah. At least four tribesmen were killed.