Yemen's president plans to return home within days after treatment in Saudi Arabia for serious injuries in an attack on his palace, officials said, as hundreds of thousands of his opponents rallied in the streets Friday to say he would not be welcome back.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh was badly burned in the June 3 blast at his palace, which wounded other members of his senior leadership and killed at least 11 guards. In his absence, Yemen's opposition parties have sought to persuade the ruling party to join them in a transitional leadership that would effectively shut out Saleh, who has resisted tremendous pressure at home and abroad to step down.
But loyalists have insisted the president will return and resume his duties, and Saleh's powerful son Ahmed, who commands some of the country's best trained military forces, has remained behind in Yemen to help maintain his father's hold.
Ruling party official Yasser al-Yamani said plans to welcome the embattled leader are under way.
"He will return home after medical reports said he is getting better," he told The Associated Press Friday.
A statement quoting a presidential official said Saleh would return "in days."
Officials in Saudi Arabia said Saleh was completing his treatment and has been able to carry out a few simple physical exercises. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Saleh intends to return home.
Much is at stake in Yemen's political turmoil, which began with anti-government protests in February. The country is the poorest in the Arab world, suffers numerous internal conflicts and is a potential source of instability for neighboring Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich parts of the Arabian peninsula.
For the U.S. and Europe, the main concern is the al-Qaida offshoot that has found refuge in Yemen's mountainous hinterlands and has been behind several nearly successful strikes on U.S. targets.
The months of protesters were inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Crowds took to the streets to demand that the autocratic leader step down after nearly 33 years in power. The largely peaceful movement gave way to heavy street fighting when tribal militias took up arms in late May.
The tribal leader in control of those fighters warned Saleh not to return.
"I don't advise Saleh to return to Yemen. ... Clashes will increase and the cycle of violence and killing among Yemenis would widen," Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar was quoted as saying in an interview with the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
On Friday, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in what has become a regular outpouring after the week's main Muslim prayer service. Crowds cried out for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to keep their president out of Yemen.
"King Abdullah, keep Ali Abdullah (Saleh)," protesters chanted in the capital, Sanaa. They also sang: "The people have already brought down the regime."
They carried banners calling for a transitional council to manage the country until elections could be held.
Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has been Yemen's acting president since Saleh left for Saudi Arabia. But Saleh's family and inner circle, who head elite security forces, are believed to wield significant power.
The U.S., which had relied on Saleh's cooperation in battling the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has been pressing him to step down as a way to end the crisis.
"We call for an immediate, peaceful and orderly transition in Yemen that allows the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations, and we encourage all sides to engage in dialogue and peacefully move Yemen forward," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington on Friday.
In the restive southern city of Taiz on Friday, Republican Guard forces loyal to Saleh clashed with gunmen protecting protesters in the city center overnight. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.
The city's entrances were heavily guarded, preventing anyone from entering or leaving, witnesses said.
During Yemen's unrest, Islamic militants have demonstrated a greater freedom to operate, seizing control of two towns in the south.
Residents in the province of Abyan said there was a series of airstrikes Friday at the northern and southern edges of the town of Jaar, which has been under militant control. At least six people were injured in the strikes, including one militant, a medical official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information.
A preacher at a mosque in Jaar urged worshippers Friday to denounce the militants' presence and called for a rally to expel them.
In response, dozens of militants fired weapons into the air and tried to storm the mosque, setting off scuffles with worshippers, witnesses said, speaking on condition they not be identified because they feared for their safety.
Associated Press writers Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.