SANAA, Yemen – Security forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in downtown Sanaa early today, just hours after President Ali Abdullah Saleh surprised his supporters and shocked his opponents by returning here unexpectedly after more than three months of medical treatment and convalescence in Saudi Arabia.
At least five demonstrators were injured, medical authorities said, in the outbreak of violence, which seemed to cement widespread concern that Saleh’s apparent resumption of power would place this country on a path certain to mean widespread violence and even civil war.
Shelling also intensified in the Hasaba district of central Sanaa as government forces and rival militias resumed battles that since Sunday have claimed more than 100 lives. One witness described the neighborhood as “on fire.”
Saleh called for more negotiations and an end to the current round of fighting on his return, state media said.
But the quick resumption of combat just hours after Saleh’s arrival in the capital bolstered the belief of many that Saleh did not come home to resign – something the United States and Yemen’s oil-rich gulf allies have tried to broker for months.
“Saleh’s return is like gasoline on a raging fire,” wrote Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton-based Yemen analyst.
Saleh had been absent from the country since June 3, when he was flown to Saudi Arabia for emergency medical care after a bomb, planted in a mosque on the presidential compound’s grounds, narrowly missed killing the president as he and other members of his government were praying.
His opponents cheered when Saleh left, expecting his stay in Saudi Arabia to mark the beginning of the end of his rule. But over the months, Saleh had been shown on state television as steadily improving, and last month he pledged he would return – though his arrival Friday morning apparently had not been telegraphed to officials or diplomats here.
By noon, thousands had massed in a park near the presidential compound for a pro-government rally, shouting slogans thanking God for Saleh’s return.
Hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators also took to the streets in protests across the country. The crowds loudly renewed calls for political change and called for Saleh’s trial, but many activists expressed apprehension.
“We’re still in shock, really, and for now all we have is rumors,” said Atiaf al-Wazir, a Sanaa-based activist. “The fear is that this could lead to all-out war, which would spell the end of the revolution.”
Saleh returned to a capital that has been wracked by the worst violence in months since Sunday’s attack on the demonstrators. The battles pit government troops and anti-government fighters, including defected troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen, a former Saleh ally.
The clashes in Hasaba featured government troops and the militia of tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, whose troops fought an extended battle with government forces.
Ahmar, who broke with the president in March, previously has sworn that he would rather die than allow Saleh’s return to power.
Members of the government have claimed that Mohsen and the Ahmar family were behind the June attack that forced Saleh to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.