Yemen Gulf initiative amendments proposed as Saleh’s circles affirm he would remain in power till 2013

Yemeni president welcomes partnership with all powers within the framework of the constitution

Fresh warnings on al-Qaeda’s expanded activities in southern Yemen

Sharaa calls during first dialogue in Syria for comprehensive conference to reach solutions amidst absence by opposition

President Barack Obama's top counter-terrorism official, John Brennan, urged Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Sunday to sign a transition plan that will lead to Saleh's departure.

Brennan met Saleh in the Saudi capital Riyadh, where Saleh had flown for medical treatment after the June 3 attack on his presidential compound.

Veteran leaders in Egypt and Tunisia bowed to popular pressure to resign, but Saleh has refused to do so and has hung on to power despite international pressure and six months of protests against his 33-year rule.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement that Brennan wished Saleh a speedy recovery and reiterated U.S. condemnation of the attack against him.

He called on Saleh to fulfill quickly his pledge to sign a Gulf-brokered deal for a peaceful handover of power in Yemen.

"Mr. Brennan emphasized the importance of resolving the political crisis in Sana’a so that the Yemeni government and people can successfully confront the serious challenges they face, including the terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of Yemeni citizens," Carney said.

He said Brennan told him the United States is working closely with Yemen's allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Europe, and elsewhere to ensure that much needed assistance will flow to Yemen as soon as the GCC proposal is signed and implemented.

"The United States believes that a transition in Yemen should begin immediately so that the Yemeni people can realize their aspirations," said Carney.

Saleh appeared on television on Thursday for the first time since an assassination attempt a month ago and said he was ready to share power within the constitution's framework.

Saleh, who is recovering in Riyadh after the June 3 bomb attack on his presidential compound, showed signs of severe burns to his face which was covered with white stubble instead of his trademark thick mustache.

He had heavily bandaged arms and hands in the appearance on Yemen TV in a pre-recorded interview.

"We are not against participation, we are for participation with all political powers, whether they are in opposition or ruling, but in the light of a program which the people agree upon," Saleh said.

Saleh, who flew to neighboring Saudi Arabia for treatment after the attack, has hung on to power despite international pressure and six months of protests against his 33-year rule.

In a note of defiance, Saleh said he would "confront a challenge with a challenge," a phrase he has often used in speeches.

Speculation about Saleh's health and the likelihood of his return to Yemen has been rife in the past five weeks. "I had eight successful operations and suffered from burns," he said, thanking Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for hosting him.

"The speech was normal, it did not offer anything new. It's the same speech we're used to from Saleh," an activist said in Sana’a, which erupted in firework displays and celebratory gunfire after the speech. Six protesters were killed and a hundred were injured as a result, a medical source told Reuters.

In the city of Ibb, south of Sana’a, armed men loyal to the ruling party attacked protesters, killing two and injuring 10, a medical source told Reuters.

Opposition official Sultan al-Atwani said Saleh's speech did little more than clarify rumors about his injuries: "It's clear that his state is not great. As for his speech, it wasn't anything new and the participation of which he spoke will not come until a national dialogue after a transfer of power."

Earlier on Thursday, an opposition leader said Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has taken the helm during Saleh's absence, had approached the opposition with a new plan to end the country's political stalemate.

Under this plan, Saleh would have stayed in power longer than outlined in a Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) initiative which the president backed out of three times at the last minute, leaving the country in political limbo.

Under the GCC deal, Saleh would have resigned 30 days after signing up to it.

"The essence of these ideas is to begin the transitional period by forming one national government led by the opposition and changing the date of presidential elections from 60 days to a longer period, without transferring power completely to the vice president," said the opposition leader, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity after the meeting with Hadi.

The new plan was a step backwards for the opposition, which had hoped Saleh's time was up when he left the country. While veteran leaders in Egypt and Tunisia have bowed to popular demands they quit, Saleh has proved a shrewd political survivor.

The political impasse has paralyzed the impoverished state, which is on the brink of civil war with rebels in the north, separatists in the south and army generals defecting from Saleh.

At least 10 soldiers were killed in an attack by militants on an army base near the southern town of Zinjibar, where a brigade has been trapped for more than a month. A local official said militants had started shelling the base late on Wednesday.

Yemen's south has descended into bloodshed in recent months, with Islamist militants suspected of links to al Qaeda seizing two cities in the flashpoint province of Abyan, including Zinjibar, its capital.

Western powers and oil giant Saudi Arabia fear al-Qaeda is exploiting the security vacuum in Yemen, from which it has previously launched failed attacks against the United States and a Saudi government minister.

Separately, unidentified gunmen stopped a vehicle carrying soldiers and civilians to the city of Lawdar, also in Abyan, and shot dead 10 soldiers after finding their military IDs, local residents said.

Opponents of Saleh, who earned U.S. backing by portraying himself as a partner against al Qaeda, accuse him of letting militants get the upper hand to convince the United States and Saudi Arabia only he can prevent an Islamist militant takeover.

A military official told Yemen's state news agency on Thursday the army had dealt a blow to al Qaeda, killing two prominent members of the organization in the Zinjibar area.

Earlier, the official said a military commander of al Qaeda's Yemen wing, Abu Khalid al-Asiri, was among 40 militants killed by armed forces in Abyan on Monday.

Meanwhile, Syria opened a "national dialogue" on Sunday that it hailed as a step towards multi-party democracy after five decades of Baath party rule, although an opposition boycott undermined its credibility.

The foreign ministry, meanwhile, called in the French and US ambassadors to deliver a "strong protest" over their visit to the flashpoint central city of Hama last week, the state news agency SANA said.

Some 200 delegates taking part in the dialogue, including independent MPs and members of the Baath party, in power since 1963, observed a minute's silence in memory of the "martyrs" before the playing of the national anthem.

But opposition figures boycotted the meeting in protest at the government's continued deadly crackdown on unprecedented protests that erupted in mid-March against President Bashar al-Assad.

"We are going to hold a comprehensive national dialogue during which we will announce Syria's transition towards a multi-party democratic state in which everyone will be equal and able to participate in the building of the nation's future," Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa said in his opening address.

He said that within a week the interior ministry would implement a government decision to "remove all obstacles to any citizen returning to Syria or traveling abroad.

"Circumstances have prevented the full implementation of several laws promulgated recently, including that ending the state of emergency," in force for five decades, the vice president said. "We need to recognize, however, that without the sacrifices made by the Syrian people who have shed blood in more than one province, this meeting could not have been held."

Dissident writer Tayyeb Tizini, who was among the few figures close to the opposition to join the meeting, expressed regret that the government had not halted its crackdown on major protest centers ahead of the dialogue's launch.

"The bullets are still being fired in Homs and Hama. I would have hoped that that would have stopped before the meeting. That's what's necessary," Tizini told delegates.

He also called for the release of thousands of detainees.

Activists said at least one person was shot dead by security forces in Homs on Sunday after tanks rolled into several districts of the central city.

SANA said the foreign ministry summoned the US and French ambassadors to hear "a strong protest against their visit to Hama without prior authorization... which constitutes a flagrant interference in Syria's domestic affairs."

In Washington, a senior US official denied that the US envoy had been summoned and accused Damascus of orchestrating violent protests over the weekend at the American embassy.

Both US envoy Robert Ford and French ambassador Eric Chevalier visited Hama on Thursday amid repeated large demonstrations in the city.

The French foreign ministry, meanwhile, summoned Syria's ambassador to France on Sunday to hear a "vigorous protest" over damage done to the French embassy and a consulate in Syria.

Syrian demonstrators caused the damage after the French ambassador's visit to Hama.

The demonstrators who gathered at the French embassy in Damascus and the consulate in Aleppo burned French flags, threw projectiles into the compounds, destroyed vehicles and generally caused "considerable damage", the ministry said.

SANA said Assad on Sunday named Anas Naim as the new governor of Hama after firing Ahmad Khaled Abdelaziz on July 2, a day after huge anti-regime protests labeled the largest ever.

A Facebook call for nationwide demonstrations against taking part in the dialogue proposed by Assad brought hundreds of thousands back onto the streets on Friday. For a second time, nearly half a million protested in Hama alone.

Security forces killed at least 15 people on Friday and arrested more than 200 during the anti-dialogue protests, activists said.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing activists in Idlib province in the northwest, said the military entered Maala and Shanan villages and damaged the houses of wanted militants and burned motorcycles.

"Security forces overnight Saturday and on Sunday arrested 25 people and beat others in areas south of Banias" on the coast, it added.

Human rights groups say that since the anti-regime protests first broke out, the security forces have killed more than 1,300 civilians and made at least 12,000 arrests.