Wounded Yemen leader flies abroad; future in doubt

By AHMED AL-HAJ | June 5, 2011 | 1:59 AM EDT

Yemeni doctors treat an elderly man who was injured in clashes between security forces and tribesmen loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribe, at a field hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Saturday, June 4, 2011. Five top members of the government were sent to Saudi Arabia for treatment of wounds they suffered in a rebel rocket attack on the presidential palace, the official government news agency reported Saturday. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was slightly injured. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for urgent medical care after a rocket attack on his palace, raising the specter of a violent power grab in this impoverished country shaken by months of protests calling for his ouster.

The abrupt departure of Saleh and much of his family Saturday followed intense pressure to step down from his powerful Gulf neighbors and longtime ally Washington, which fear the chaos could plunge the country into anarchy and undermine the U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida's most active branch. It was not immediately clear who was in charge.

Yemen's unrest was inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world, which have already led to the downfall of governments in Egypt and Tunisia. It already has cost the government control of some remote provinces, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and other Islamist extremists have exploited the turmoil to bolster their position in the Arab world's poorest country.

"Saleh was an inconsistent partner in the war against al-Qaida," said Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But at least he was partner part of the time."

Saleh, who is in his late 60s, had agreed to transfer power several times, only to step back at the last moment. Analysts said it appeared unlikely Saleh would return to Yemen: The Saudis have tried repeatedly to persuade him to step down and now he is in their care, large segments of the population oppose him, and a powerful tribal alliance took up arms against him.

A video posted on YouTube late Saturday showed hundreds of protesters in the Sanaa square where activists have camped out for months dancing and singing, some riding on each other's shoulders. The video's date could not be confirmed.

A Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said Saleh had left with most of his family. The official said he and others had only learned about Saleh's plans after the president left.

A statement from the Saudi royal palace said a Saudi medical team traveled to Yemen to examine the president, then advised him to seek treatment in the kingdom. Saleh agreed and left Saturday night, the statement said.

Officials said Yemen's constitution calls for the vice president to take over in the absence of the president. Several other senior regime leaders, including the prime minister, also were in Saudi Arabia after being wounded in Friday's attack.

John Brennan, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, spoke with the Yemeni vice president by telephone on Saturday, a White House official said, but offered no details. Brennan had traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss the crisis during a three-day visit to the Gulf that ended Friday.

Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said they could not confirm that power had been transferred to Vice President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Saleh also has been widely believed to be grooming his son, Ahmed, as a successor. Ahmed was believed to have stayed behind in an apparent bid to hold on to power, raising concern the country could be pitted into a violent power struggle as the sides jockey to fill the vacuum in the president's absence.

The unrest in Yemen began in mid-February when protesters — inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia — took to the streets to demand that the autocratic leader of 33 years step down. But that generally peaceful movement gave way to vicious street fighting when tribal militias took up arms two weeks ago.

Saleh's arrival in Saudi capped a flurry of conflicting reports about his whereabouts and condition that spread after Yemeni government officials and opposition tribal leaders said Saudi King Abdullah had mediated a cease-fire and invited Saleh to seek treatment in the neighboring kingdom. Past cease-fires have not held, but no fighting was reported in Sanaa on Saturday.

Saudi Arabia called "on all parties to exercise restraint and use reason" to keep the country from "sliding into more violence and fighting."

Saleh's departure likely means his rule is over, said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"I'd hate to rule anything out for President Saleh," Boucek said, noting that Saleh is a proven political survivor who has often beat overwhelming odds. "But I can't see how he can come back and still be president."

Although the U.S. long stood by Saleh, the Obama administration has been trying to negotiate a stable exit for him as the situation grew more unstable and government forces continued to crack down on dissent, with more than 150 protesters killed since the uprising began in mid-February.

Fighting between rebellious tribesmen and government forces has left more than 160 people dead over the last two weeks.

Violence reached a crescendo Friday when a rocket slammed into the mosque in the presidential compound during a prayer service, killing 11 bodyguards and seriously injuring five top officials who were worshipping along with Saleh.

The president delivered an audio address hours later, his voice labored, with only an old photo shown. His failure to appear in public despite repeated promises raised speculation that his injuries were more severe than acknowledged.

An activist and a witness, meanwhile, said military forces in the southern port city of Aden had withdrawn from checkpoints. Elsewhere in the south, armed gunmen stormed buildings in Taiz, prompting protesters to form committees to try to keep the peace.

Worried their peaceful movement was being co-opted, protesters in Taiz and the capital, Sanna, joined forces to issue a statement demanding the formation of a transitional council comprising civilians "whose hands are not stained with blood."

Friday's rocket attack was the first direct strike against Saleh in nearly four months of protests that had prompted a fierce crackdown by government forces.

Sheik Mohammed Nagi al-Shayef, a tribal ally, said he met the president Saturday evening at the Defense Ministry compound in the capital.

"He suffered burns, but they were not serious. He was burned on both hands, his face and head," al-Shayef told The Associated Press. He said Saleh also was hit by jagged pieces of wood that splintered from the mosque pulpit. About 200 people were in the mosque when the rocket landed.

Through the pre-dawn hours Saturday, government and opposition forces exchanged rocket fire, damaging a contested police station. The rockets rained down on streets housing government buildings that had been taken over by tribesmen.

Since violence erupted in the capital on May 23, residents have been hiding in basements as the two sides fight for control of government ministries and hammer one another in artillery duels and gunbattles, rattling neighborhoods and sending smoke billowing into the air.

The temporary calm also spread to Taiz, where the Republican Guard brigade that had occupied the streets quietly left town and returned to base.

Taiz had been a focal point of anti-Saleh activism since the uprising began. The Republican Guard left Saturday without giving a reason after having violently cleared protest camps there last week.

The brigade issued no official statement as other military groups have done when defecting to the opposition. But its returning to base is significant because it led a fierce crackdown on protesters earlier this week that killed at least 25 people, sparking international condemnation.

Late Saturday, the tribal leader whose fighters have been battling Saleh's forces in the capital accused them of not observing the Saudi-brokered cease-fire. Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid confederation, said Saleh's forces were reinforcing their positions.

"We are respecting what we agreed upon under the guidance of the Saudi monarch to stop the bloodshed of innocents and bring safety for citizens based on our desire to bring security and quiet back to the capital, which is living through a terrible nightmare that Saleh's regime has brought upon it," al-Ahmar said in a statement.

Germany said Saturday it had closed its embassy in Yemen.

Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters have been trying unsuccessfully since February to oust Saleh with a wave of peaceful protests that have brought out hundreds of thousands daily in cities across Yemen.

Now the crisis has transformed into a power struggle between two of Yemen's most powerful families — Saleh's, which dominates the security forces, and the al-Ahmar clan, which leads Yemen's strongest tribal confederation. The confederation groups around 10 northern tribes.

Al-Ahmar announced the Hashid's support for the protest movement in March, and his fighters adhered to the movement's nonviolence policy. But last week, Saleh's forces moved against al-Ahmar's fortress-like residence in Sanaa, and the tribe's fighters rose up in fury.


Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Ben Hubbard in Cairo and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.