Badly injured Saleh unlikely to return soon

Many fear that if Mr Saleh is given a chance to return, his comeback would reignite the fighting in the capital as opposition tribes try to oust him

Yemen's wounded President was yesterday said to be in a much graver condition than previously thought after an attack on his compound last week prompted him to flee from the country.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is receiving medical treatment in a Saudi hospital, is said to be suffering burns to 40 per cent of his body, bleeding in his skull and a collapsed lung, serious injuries that suggest he will be unable to return to Yemen soon.

Unusually, information regarding the extent of his injuries has been leaked from Washington, possibly in an effort to counter claims from Mr Saleh's aides that the President is in good health and intending to return to Yemen to resume his post.

His injuries are likely to bolster efforts by the United States and Saudi Arabia to persuade Mr Saleh to accept a deal that would see him hand power to his Vice-President in return for immunity from prosecution.

As news of Mr Saleh's injuries filtered out, some 4,000 protesters marched on the residence of Yemen's deputy Vice-President, Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, urging the acting leader to form an interim council that would form a new government and stymie a comeback by the President. "The people want to form a transitional council, we will not sleep, we will not sit until the council is formed," the protesters chanted.

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, joined the calls yesterday, urging Mr Hadi to "begin political transition now". Many fear if Mr Saleh is given a chance to return, his comeback would reignite the fighting in the capital as opposition tribes try to oust him.

Mr Saleh, 69, was wounded on Friday when an explosion shook his compound in the capital, Sana'a, killing 11 of his bodyguards and injuring officials and advisers. The Hashid tribe, which was engaged in daily clashes with Mr Saleh's forces in the two weeks prior to the attack, has denied involvement.

Although his departure was greeted with jubilation in Yemen, where a popular uprising has called for his ousting since January, it left the country with a power vacuum. Analysts say the longer there is no solution, the greater the risk that conflict between Yemen's heady mix of regime loyalists, radical Islamists, secessionist rebels and armed tribes will plunge the country into a civil war.

The West has watched with alarm Yemen's slide into bloodshed, fearful that the chaos will allow a potent franchise of al-Qa'ida, which is entrenched in Yemen's lawless south, to thrive.

Heavy fighting erupted across Yemen yesterday, with regime troops claiming to have killed 30 Islamic militants whose allegiance remains unclear, including a local al-Qa'ida commander who had seized the coastal town of Zinjibar 10 days ago. Fifteen soldiers were also killed, a local official said.

Mr Saleh's opponents had accused the President of deliberately allowing Islamic militants to take over the town, enabling him to demonstrate the security risks faced by his departure.

Tribesmen and armed dissidents have reportedly taken control of Taiz, the scene of a brutal crackdown by regime loyalists on pro-democracy protesters two weeks ago, apparently to prevent the youth-led movement from further attacks.

But clashes continued, and a shell that landed in a residential area killed four people, including three children.