Clashes rocked the Yemeni capital on Saturday, leaving dozens of people dead a day after President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned from months of medical treatment in Riyadh carrying “the dove of peace.”

“We slept and woke up to the non-stop sound of gunfire,” one Sana'a resident told AFP as firefights between rival military units raged in the city centre.

“More than 40 people were killed on Saturday” in battles that hit several neighbourhoods across Sana'a, including Change Square, epicentre of anti-regime protests, an activist from the protest organising committee said. He said hundreds of others were wounded as the death toll spiralled to 173 people over the past week. State news agency Saba said 24 of Mr. Saleh's soldiers have also been killed.

As gunfire echoed across the capital, hundreds of thousands of people set out in a massive march from Change Square, which itself came under fire from the security forces from several directions, witnesses said.

Troops killed

A dissident military spokesman said 11 of his division's troops were killed on Saturday and 112 wounded when elite Republican Guard troops, commanded by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's son Ahmed, attacked a camp of the First Armoured Brigade north of Change Square.

Mr. Saleh returned to Yemen on Friday, preaching peace, after a three-month absence in Saudi Arabia, where he was treated for wounds sustained in a June 3 bomb attack on his palace.

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