SANAA// Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was seen publicly last night for the first time since he was injured in a blast at his palace compound early last month, appearing on television with his face burnt and his hands covered with bandages.
In a brief pre-recorded appearance that aired on Yemeni state TV, Mr Saleh said he had had eight successful operations since he left for Saudi Arabia for treatment on June 3.
Mr Saleh lashed out at those who have sought to end his nearly 33 years in power, saying they have an "incorrect understanding of democracy".
"Where are the men who fear God? Why don't they stand with dialogue and with reaching satisfactory solutions?" for all Yemenis, he said.
Nearly five months of protests by crowds calling for his departure have left Mr Saleh clinging to power. Defections by key allies and immense international pressure have failed to push him to agree an end to his reign.
"We do welcome participation in line with the constitution and law and on democratic bases ... we are not against [political] participation," said Mr Saleh, who sat stiffly during his televised appearance, his face darkened by burns.
He thanked his vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who has come under domestic and international pressure to assume power during the president's absence, "for his efforts in bridging gaps between all political parties" in Yemen.
He also thanked the republic's people. "I do appreciate those Yemeni men and women, youths for their steadfastness and facing the challenge that occurred in the attack [June 3] by terrorist elements," he said.
Mr Saleh, 68, did not mention when, or if, he would return to Yemen - the subject of much speculation in the past weeks. Western diplomats have said his injuries are serious and he is not expected back for months.
His first public appearance was followed by celebratory gunfire and fireworks in the streets of Saana and several other cities, despite a warning by the interior ministry.
The gunfire appeared to be a show of force by Mr Saleh's relatives and supporters. Mr Saleh's comments come as the political stalemate and power vacuum drags on, pushing the country into a humanitarian crisis driven by increasing prices of food and fuel.
Mr Saleh has failed three times to sign a plan brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council in which he would step down. Under the plan, the vice president would formally take power, a unity government would be formed with the ruling and opposition parties and elections would be held within two months.
But the opposition has repeatedly said it would not settle for anything less than an immediate transfer of power.
Even after the attack, Mr Saleh's son and other family members, some of whom command military units, have refused to let the vice president take control of the country.
In recent weeks, Islamist militants, some believed to have links to Al Qaeda, have seized upon the growing chaos to take over entire towns in southern Yemen, and pressure is mounting for a resolution of the crisis. ,The United States, in favour of a power transfer, fears Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen could further exploit the country's turmoil to strengthen its presence there. Al Qaeda-linked groups have already used Yemen as a base for plotting two attempted anti-US attacks.
The UN's Security Council has also pressed for inclusive political dialogue.
The crisis began with protests by largely peaceful crowds that endured a government crackdown. At the end of May, days of street battles broke out in the capital between government forces and armed fighters loyal to Yemen's most powerful tribal leader, who turned against the president.
Yesterday, suspected Al Qaeda militants killed 10 Yemeni soldiers after stopping them at a fake checkpoint in the south, security officials said. The militants ordered the soldiers off a bus as they returned from leave to rejoin their units, and shot them execution style, the officials said.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press