TIME Meets Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh

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Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh doesn’t act like a man with his back to the wall. Despite an eight-month-long popular uprising, major military defections, international pressure to step down and an assassination attempt that nearly took his life in June, he has made it clear that he will relinquish power only on his own terms. His belligerent stance risks putting this impoverished nation, plagued by militancy and home to the most virulent branch of al-Qaeda, on the path of civil war.

In an interview with TIME and the Washington Post — his first since returning to Yemen last week after four months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for wounds sustained in June bomb attack at the Presidential Palace — Saleh lashed out at his political rivals, accusing them of hijacking a popular revolt inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in order to foist him out of office. “They [the opposition] are saying that the government is the one that is oppressing the protestors, but on the other hand, they are the ones who are oppressing the state itself by their actions,” Saleh said, obliquely linking his rivals with the attempted assassination. Though he declined to elaborate on his condition, his hands were enveloped in medical compression gloves usually worn by burn victims to prevent debilitating scarring. His traditional Yemeni head cloth was artfully folded low over his forehead, perhaps in an attempt to conceal further scars. He appeared to have trouble hearing as well, leaning forward for questions while carefully lifting the folded cloth over his ears.(See the transcript of TIME’s interview with Saleh.)

What started as a peaceful youth protest in February has calcified into a tense standoff marked by extreme violence and outright turf battles between government troops, tribal militias and fighters loyal to a powerful general who defected to support the protestors. It was hoped that Saleh’s return last Friday, coming on the heels of a particularly violent week that saw more than 100 dead, would signal a break in the impasse. Instead it has ratcheted up tensions. Tens of thousands of protestors throughout the country continue their daily anti-government demonstrations, while members of the political opposition, which includes both socialist and Islamist parties, struggle to coalesce.

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