Yemen braces for rival demos

Yemeni Prez is reportedly out of intensive care in Saudi Arabia after treatment for blast wounds.

Sana’a: Pro- and anti-regime activists in Yemen promised fresh rallies on Friday as state media said the country`s President was out of intensive care in Saudi Arabia after treatment for bomb blast wounds.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh`s troops on Thursday killed two anti-government gunmen in the southern protest hub of Taez.

And fighting intensified in the southern town of Zinjibar, held by suspected al Qaeda gunmen since last month.

There were fireworks over Sana’a on Wednesday night as Saleh loyalists celebrated the success of the President`s surgery in a Riyadh hospital, Saba state news agency said.

Celebratory gunfire wounded about 80 people in the capital alone, medical sources said. Witnesses said there were also casualties in provincial towns.

Saleh has not been seen in public since he was wounded in a bomb attack on his presidential compound last Friday and there have been conflicting reports about Saleh`s health since he was flown to Riyadh on Saturday for treatment.

The attack itself was an assassination bid, likely an "inside job" using an explosive device, not a mortar or shells as initially reported, US experts said on Thursday.

STRATFOR, a US-based authority on strategic and tactical intelligence issues, said it had based its assessment on an evaluation of photographs taken of the blast site, a mosque inside Saleh`s presidential compound in Sana’a.

A Saudi official said the 69-year-old Yemeni President`s health was "stable" and was waiting for doctors to fix a date for cosmetic surgery.

Saleh would undergo an operation to treat "light burns on the scalp", he said, dismissing as "baseless" reports that his health had deteriorated.

Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi also insisted Saleh was in good condition and would return to Yemen within days.

But as Saleh recovers, his opponents have been pressing his deputy to establish an interim ruling council to prevent him from returning to power.

And while regime supporters called for a mass gathering under the slogan of "loyalty to Saleh" on Friday in Sana’a to celebrate his recovery, opponents announced a counter protest.

Saleh has come under mounting international pressure to quit as five months of protests have drawn powerful tribes into the conflict, sparking deadly fighting with loyalist security forces on the streets of Sana’a.

And the United States has warned that the turmoil in Osama bin Laden`s ancestral homeland is playing into the hands of al Qaeda.

Saleh`s government has been a key partner in the US `war on terror", while always denying having allowed US strikes on its soil, insisting its own forces carried out the operations.

In Washington, CIA chief Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that US counterterrorism operations against extremists in Yemen, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), were continuing.

"While obviously it`s a scary and uncertain situation, with regards to counterterrorism we`re still very much continuing our operations," Panetta, who Obama has nominated to be the next defence secretary, said on Thursday.

Fresh fighting erupted around the militant-held Zinjibar late on Wednesday, killing three soldiers and 10 suspected al Qaeda gunmen, an officer said.

The Defence Ministry said troops had killed 12 al Qaeda members in Abyan province including three leading figures named as Ammar al-Waeli, Abu Ali al-Harithi and Abu Ayman al-Masri.

Government officials say most of Zinjibar is in the hands of the jihadists but the opposition accuses Saleh of exaggerating the al Qaeda threat in a desperate bid to ease foreign pressure on his 33-year rule.

In the city of Taez, south of Sana’a, meanwhile, troops killed two members of the "Eagles of Liberty", a local militia that sided with protesters.

Vigilante committees of locals and tribesmen had been deployed around most of Taez, Yemen`s second-largest city, after security forces retreated to their bases following clashes.

Security forces killed more than 50 protesters, according to UN figures, in a May 30 crackdown on an anti-regime sit-in at Freedom Square in the flashpoint city.

A British minister said on Thursday in Abu Dhabi that Saleh`s absence abroad left room to push for a transition of power, as proposed by Yemen`s Arab neighbours in the Gulf.

"We know that the President was badly hurt in the explosion," said Alistair Burt, Britain`s under-secretary of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

"Our sense is that this provides an opportunity" for a Gulf initiative for Saleh to stand down in return for immunity from prosecution, he said.

Bureau Report