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U.S., Saudis scramble for Yemen power transfer

But the acting leader said Saleh, operated on for wounds, would return home within days.

SAN'A, Yemen - With wounded President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of Yemen, the United States and Saudi Arabia scrambled Monday to arrange a power transfer ensuring an end to his decades-long rule. But a top official said Saleh, recovering in Saudi Arabia, would return home within days, a step almost certain to reignite violence.

A return by Saleh would likely spark new, intensified fighting between his forces and opposition tribesmen determined to topple him. Both sides' fighters are deployed in the streets of the capital, and a cease-fire brokered by Saudi Arabia only a day earlier was already starting to fray, with clashes killing at least six.

Saleh was rushed late Saturday to the Saudi capital for treatment after being wounded in a rocket attack Friday on his palace amid two weeks of fighting in San'a. His departure cheered protesters who have been turning out by the hundreds of thousands since February demanding his ouster. To them, it seemed inevitable he would be unable to come back.

But Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is acting leader in Saleh's absence, told European ambassadors Monday, "Saleh's health is improving greatly and he will return to the country in the coming days," the state news agency reported. Saleh had surgery to remove shards of wood from his chest and treat heavy burns on his face and chest.

A renewal of fighting could push the impoverished nation into outright civil war. The United States fears that al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen could exploit the turmoil to strengthen its presence in the country, which it has already used as a base for plotting two attempted anti-U.S. attacks.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "We are calling for a peaceful and orderly transition, a nonviolent transition.. . . We think an immediate transition is in the best interests of the Yemeni people."

Furious diplomatic efforts were under way involving the Saudis, the United States, the Yemenis, and Gulf Arab nations to work out a transfer of power, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He likened the complex process to "four-dimensional chess."

The focus is on reviving a U.S.-backed deal mediated earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Gulf Arab nations including Saudi Arabia. Under the deal, Saleh would retire, handing power to his vice president; a unity government between his party and the opposition would be formed, and presidential elections would be held within two weeks.

In recent weeks, Saleh refused three times to sign the deal. As he was being evacuated for surgery, he defied heavy Saudi pressure and refused to even sign a presidential decree formally transferring his authorities to Hadi, a sign he was intent on returning.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped for an early resolution to the crisis. But Ban stopped short of calling on Saleh to step down.

Saudi Arabia wields enormous influence with Saleh, providing substantial financial aid to his regime to and many of Yemen's tribes. But it is unclear how far it would go to push him to accept the deal or prevent him from returning to his homeland.

Saleh has a powerful presence on the ground: his sons and nephews, who command Yemen's strongest military units and remain in Yemen. Their forces remained deployed around San'a on Monday.

Developments In the Region

Bahrain: Forty-seven doctors and nurses

who treated injured antigovernment protesters during the months of unrest in the gulf country went on trial at a closed hearing in a security court Monday on allegations they participated in efforts to overthrow

the monarchy.

The prosecution of the health professionals is a sign Bahrain's Sunni rulers will not end their relentless pursuit of the Shiite-led opposition despite officially lifting emergency rule last week. The court has military prosecutors and military and civilian judges.

Egypt: Crowds dressed in black held demonstrations to honor Khaled Said, a young Alexandria man beaten to death a year ago in

a savage attack - for which police were blamed - that helped inspire the uprising that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. On Monday's anniversary of Said's death, crowds held silent protests in Cairo and Alexandria to remember him and draw attention to continued police abuses.

- Associated Press