- Associated Press - Saturday, June 4, 2011

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia on Saturday for urgent medical care for burns and other wounds suffered in a rocket attack on his palace. The abrupt departure of a key U.S. ally in the war against terror threatened to deepen the crisis in his impoverished nation shaken by months of protests against his 33-year rule.

Saleh’s departure followed intense pressure from his powerful Gulf neighbors and longtime ally Washington to step down amid fears the chaos would plunge the country into anarchy and undermine the U.S.-backed campaign against al Qaeda’s most active branch.

The ongoing unrest 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 country.

Saleh was an inconsistent partner in the war against al Qaeda,” 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 had agreed to transfer power several times, only to step back at the last moment. It appeared unlikely Saleh would return to Yemen, given the opposition by large segments of the population and a powerful tribal alliance that took up arms after peaceful protests failed to persuade him to step down.

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.

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.”

Saudi Arabia, which has played a major role in efforts to end the political crisis in Yemen, called “on all parties to exercise restraint and use reason” to keep the country from “sliding into more violence and fighting.”

More than three months of generally peaceful protests gave way to vicious street fighting when tribal militias took up arms two weeks ago.

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.

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