‘Yemen troops may have killed civilians’

There are concerns al Qaeda is exploiting Yemen`s instability amid the popular uprising.

Sanaa: A leading rights group says Yemeni troops may have killed dozens of civilians caught in the crossfire as government troops battle al Qaeda linked militants in the country`s restive south.

Human Rights Watch cites accounts from several residents who fled the fighting in the southern Abyan province where the government is battling Islamic militants after losing control over the provincial capital, Zinjibar, and another town.

In a statement Saturday, the New York-based group also says the militants "may have unlawfully placed civilians at risk by deploying in densely populated areas and engaging in looting and other abuses."

There are concerns al Qaeda is exploiting Yemen`s instability amid the popular uprising seeking the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

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 Qaeda`s most active branches. The US and others worry al Qaeda 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 US-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.

In the restive Abyan province in southern Yemen, government troops have been battling al Qaeda-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 US. More than 300 soldiers and dozens of militants have been wounded, the statement said.

Bureau Report

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