SANAA, Yemen – With the wounded president out of Yemen, the United States and Saudi Arabia scrambled Monday to arrange a power transfer ensuring an end to his decades-long rule. But a top official said President Ali Abdullah Saleh, recovering in Saudi Arabia, would return home within days, a step almost certain to re-ignite violence.
A return by Saleh would likely spark new, intensified fighting between his forces and opposition tribesmen determined to topple him. Both sides' fighters are deployed in the streets of the capital, and a cease-fire brokered by Saudi Arabia only a day earlier was already starting to fray, with clashes killing at least six.
Saleh was rushed late Saturday to the Saudi capital for treatment after being wounded in a rocket attack on his palace amid two weeks of fighting in Sanaa. His departure raised cheers from protesters who have been turning out in the streets by the hundreds of thousands since February demanding his ouster. To them, it seemed inevitable he would be unable to come back.
But Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is acting leader in the president's absence, told European ambassadors Monday, "Saleh's health is improving greatly and he will return to the country in the coming days," the state news agency reported. Saleh underwent surgery to remove shards of wood from his chest and repair burns.
A renewal of fighting could push the impoverished nation into outright civil war. The United States fears that al-Qaida's branch in Yemen could exploit the turmoil to strengthen its presence in the country, which it has already used as a base for plotting two attempted anti-U.S. attacks.
"We are calling for a peaceful and orderly transition, a nonviolent transition that is consistent with Yemen's own constitution," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "We think an immediate transition is in the best interests of the Yemeni people."
Furious diplomatic efforts were underway involving the Saudis, the United States, the Yemenis and Gulf Arab nations to work out a transfer of power, a U.S. official said. He likened the complex process to "four-dimensional chess." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The focus is on reviving a U.S.-backed deal mediated earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of Gulf Arab nations including Saudi Arabia. Under the deal, Saleh would retire, handing power to his vice president, a unity government between his party and the opposition would be formed and presidential elections held within two weeks.
In the past weeks, Saleh refused three times to sign the deal. As he was being evacuated for surgery over the weekend, he defied heavy Saudi pressure and refused to even sign a presidential decree formally transferring his authorities to Hadi, a sign he was intent on coming back.
Saudi Arabia on Monday pressed Saleh to sign now. After a Cabinet meeting headed by King Abdullah, the Saudi government expressed its "hope that the initiative be signed ... to get Yemen through the crisis, preserving its security, stability and unity."
The kingdom wields enormous influence with Saleh, providing his regime — and many of Yemen's tribes — with substantial financial aid. But it is unclear how far it would go to push him to accept the deal or prevent him from returning to his homeland. It and the United States have been deeply reluctant to enter into an open clash with a longtime ally.
The original agreement called for Saleh to remain in office for 30 days after signing. But the Yemeni opposition says the aim now that Saleh is out of the country is to have an immediate resignation, make the transfer of power to the vice president official and move on with the deal's provisions for a new government.
Abdullah Awabal, a Yemeni opposition leader who met a day earlier with the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, said the Saudis, Americans and Europeans are all "in agreement to implement the initiative now. There can be no waiting."
But Saleh's ruling party appeared to be digging in its heels.
"Nothing will happen without the approval of the president," Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janabi on Monday insisted.
Saleh still has a powerful presence on the ground to back his hand: his sons and nephews, who command Yemen's strongest military units and who remain in the country. Their forces remained deployed around Sanaa on Monday, locked in a tense standoff with tribal fighters. Saleh's family may have the most to lose in any deal, since many in the opposition demand that their lock on top government and security positions be broken.
Tribal fighters loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar rose up on May 23 after Saleh's forces moved against al-Ahmar's residence in Sanaa. The ensuing fighting saw heavy street battles, killing dozens, with government artillery hammering Sanaa's Hassaba district, where al-Ahmar's home is located. Tribal fighters overwhelmed more than a dozen government ministries in the area. Al-Ahmar leads Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation.
Friday's stunning rocket attack, which the government first blamed on tribal fighters and later on al-Qaida, hit a mosque in Saleh's palace, killing 11 bodyguards and seriously injuring five senior officials worshipping at his side.
Amid the uncertainty, the cease-fire was shaky.
Gunmen — apparently pro-Saleh forces — attacked tribal fighters in Hassaba on Monday, killing three tribesmen, al-Ahmar's office said.
Late Sunday, pro-government gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint manned by a military unit that defected and joined the opposition, an officer from the unit said. In the clash, two of the attackers and one of the unit's soldiers were killed, the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Hassaba remained tense, with government forces dug in despite promises under the cease-fire that they would pull back from their positions. Residents trying to return to their homes in the neighborhood were forced back by snipers firing from rooftops, another pro-opposition military officer said. While unable to enter the district, an Associated Press reporter who reached the edges could see broken electricity pylons and shops and buildings pockmarked by mortar shrapnel.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Matthew Lee in Washington and Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh contributed to this report.