- 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.

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.

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 kingdom. Past cease-fires have not held, but no fighting was reported in Sanaa on Saturday.

Yemen’s constitution calls for the vice president to take over in the absence of the president, and it appeared that Vice President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi was in charge. 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.

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. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation.

Brennan discussed the crisis in Yemen with officials in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during a three-day visit to the Gulf that ended Friday.

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 the southern city of 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.

An official from the Republican Guard’s 33rd brigade said gunmen clashed with the brigade overnight, destroying three of their vehicles. Meanwhile, officers and prominent city residents pressured Brig. Gen. Jibrah al-Hashidi to stop opposing the protesters, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under military rules.

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 “because of current developments.”

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.

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