Ali Abdullah Saleh, the outgoing Yemeni president, has said he will return to his country before an election to install his successor is finished, raising concerns about his commitment to a peace deal that would ease him out of power.
Saleh is currently in the US receiving treatment for injuries he sustained during an assassination attempt last year in the capital Sanaa. He left in late January, apparently conveing his intention to abide by a plan to step down from power.
"I will return to the land of the nation after the end of my treatment to be present during the election," Saleh says in a statement posted on the Yemeni defence ministry's website on Tuesday.
The development came just hours after Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Yemeni vice-president, officially launched his presidential campaign. Hadi is the only candidate and is expected to be rubber stamped.
Hadi has been acting as Yemen's head of state since Saleh, in power for 33 years, agreed to step down as part of a Gulf and US-brokered deal meant to resolve months of protests and violence.
He told dignitaries and reporters gathered at a ceremony on Tuesday that the election represents a "first step towards a secured future."
"This election represents the best way out of the political crisis that could have turned into a civil war," Hadi said.
He spoke of "difficult days" ahead but said he was "sure of the ability to overcome" difficulties.
"People are no longer able to be patient over the suffering that has lasted longer that it should have," he said.
The shaky government has begun a publicity campaign to get citizens to vote in the election, to be held on February 21, amid fears of a low turnout.
That could dent Hadi's legitimacy and make it harder for him to lead Yemen during an expected two-year interim period when crucial decisions, dealing with restructuring the armed forms and introducing constitutional reforms, are expected to be taken.
"Your vote protects Yemen," reads a giant poster hung in Sanaa that depicts a smiling woman in a pink headscarf as she places her ballot into a voting box.
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Abdul Wahhab al-Qudsi, head of the electoral commission's external relations, said preparations for the vote were in full swing.
"[Our] main committee has gone to different provinces and the subcommittee will go off this weekend," he told the Reuters news agency.
It will be the first time in 33 years that a candidate other than Saleh - now in the US for treatment of injuries sustained in an assassination attempt last year - will head the impoverished Arab state, located along key oil shipping routes.
Hadi has been endorsed as the candidate by all parties represented in parliament, under the deal Yemen's
wealthier Gulf neighbours struck to remove Saleh.
The deal envisions a two-year transition phase leading to new parliamentary elections.
Yemen is trying to recover from months of mass anti-Saleh protests and factional fighting that have allowed al-Qaeda's regional wing to seize swathes of the south while Shia Muslim rebels known as Houthis carve out their own territory in the north. Houthis and separatists in the south have both said they'll boycott the election.
The US and top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, fearing that instability will allow al-Qaeda to expand its base of
operations in Yemen, are counting on elections to bring stability back to the country and avert the threat of outright civil war.
Despite all the preparations and costs, some Yemenis worry that the elections may not spawn a peaceful transition.
Analysts say that some of the governments that backed the transition accord worry that a national unity government, comprised of Saleh's People's Congress Party and the opposition's Joint Meeting Parties, would favour a low turnout.
Yemeni officials said the US would not tolerate attempts to upset Hadi's ascension to the presidency.
"The American administration told representatives of [both sides within the unity government] that ... the UN Security Council will strongly confront any attempts to keep Hadi from being elected as the country's president," a Yemeni minister who attended a meeting with US officials last week told Reuters.
Underscoring the disorder in Yemen, unknown assailants fired on a car transporting 34 million Yemeni riyals ($200,000) worth of salaries in the southern city of Aden on Monday, injuring one of the drivers, a local security source told Reuters.
The wages were being taken to workers who built desks and other furniture for local schools. Such money is essential in Yemen, where 42 per cent of the population of 24 million lives on less than $2 a day, according to World Bank data.