Yemen protesters cheer Saleh’s departure

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Protesters danced, sang and slaughtered cows in the central square of Yemen‘s capital Sunday to celebrate the departure of the country’s authoritarian leader for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after he was wounded in a rocket attack on his compound.

Saudi-owned television network Al-Arabiya reported President Ali Abdullah Saleh was undergoing surgery but did not say for what. One of Mr. Saleh’s allies said the president, in his late 60s, was hit by jagged pieces of wood that splintered from the mosque pulpit when his compound was hit by a rocket on Friday.

There was no official announcement on who was acting as head of state. But under the Yemen Constitution, the vice president takes over for up to 60 days when the head of state is absent. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi met Sunday with U.S. Ambassador Gerald Michael Feierstein, a strong indication that he is in charge.

Mr. Saleh’s absence raised the specter of an even more violent power struggle between the armed tribesmen who have turned against him and loyalist military forces. Street battles between the sides already have pushed the more than 3-month-old political crisis to the brink of civil war over this deeply impoverished and unstable corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

But for one day at least, the capital was celebrating. Protesters thronged Sanaa’s Change Square, the epicenter of the nationwide protest movement since mid-February, calling for Mr. Saleh to step down immediately. Some uniformed soldiers joined those dancing and singing patriotic songs and were hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd. Many in the jubilant crowd waved Yemeni flags, joyfully whistling and flashing the “V” for victory signs.

Women in black veils joined demonstrators carrying banners that hailed Mr. Saleh’s departure. One read, “The oppressor is gone, but the people stay.”

Activist and rights lawyer Khaled al-Ansi said families and children were arriving in the square in party clothes.

“People have trickled in since dawn to the square. Some have not slept yet. It is like a holiday,” he said.

Yemen‘s conflict began as a peaceful protest movement that the government at times used brutal force to try to suppress. It transformed in recent weeks into armed conflict after the president’s forces attacked the home of a key tribal leader and one-time ally who emerged as a dangerous rival after throwing his support behind the uprising. The fighting turned the streets of the capital, Sanaa, into a war zone.

Other forces rose against Mr. Saleh at the same time. There were high-level defections within his military, and Islamist fighters took over at least one town in the south in the past two weeks. Mr. Saleh blamed the tribal rivals for the attack on his compound Friday, which killed 11 bodyguards and wounded at least five senior government officials in addition to the president.

In Taiz, Yemen‘s second largest city, dozens of gunmen attacked the presidential palace on Sunday, killing four soldiers in an attempt to storm the compound, according to military officials and witnesses. They said one of the attackers also was killed in the violence. The attackers belong to a group set up recently to avenge the killing of anti-regime protesters at the hands of Mr. Saleh’s security forces.

Nine soldiers were killed when gunman ambushed a military convoy in the south, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Mr. Saleh has been under intense pressure to step down from his powerful Gulf neighbors, who control a large share of the world’s oil resources, and from longtime ally Washington. They all fear Yemen could be headed toward a failed state that will become a fertile ground for al Qaeda’s most active franchise to operate and launch attacks abroad.

In a display of the kind of political maneuvering that has helped keep in power through numerous perils, he agreed three times to a U.S.-backed Gulf Arab proposal for ending the crisis, only to back out at the last minute.

Now, Mr. Saleh’s injuries and his treatment abroad provide him with what could turn out to be a face-saving solution to exit power.

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