- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2012

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said Sunday he will travel to Washington for medical treatment, and he asked Yemenis for forgiveness, saying in a farewell speech that it is time to hand over power, state media reported.

The mercurial president told Yemeni TV networks that he had formally handed power to his vice president but would return to his homeland before early presidential elections scheduled for next month as the head of the General People’s Congress Party.

An official at the Sanaa airport said that a presidential plane had left the country Sunday morning, but he declined to say who was on board. Two other airport officials said that Mr. Saleh had already left the country, but the claims could not be confirmed.

The reports come a day after Yemeni parliament approved a law that gives Mr. Saleh immunity from prosecution and is in line with the timetable set in a U.S.-backed power-transfer deal aimed at ending months of political stalemate and violence.

Facing continued protests demanding his ouster, Mr. Saleh in November agreed to step down. A unity government between his party and the opposition has since been created. However, Mr. Saleh — still formally the president — has continued to influence politics from behind the scenes through his family and loyalists in power positions.

The deal was widely rejected by millions of street protesters, who have staged anti-Saleh demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring of revolutions that have successfully led to the ouster of autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters reject the immunity clause, insisting Mr. Saleh should be prosecuted for the alleged killings of protesters and corruption.

The president, who has ruled for more than 33 years, left the country once before, traveling to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after coming under attack, and he repeatedly has gone back and forth on whether he would leave again.

His remarks, reported by the official Yemeni news agency, were the strongest indication that he was preparing to leave, as he said Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi “is the one responsible now” and urged rival political parties and youth to unite and achieve “reconciliation.”

Mr. Saleh gave no date for his departure, and it was not clear if he would go directly to Washington. Yemeni officials said Saturday that the president planned to travel to Oman first.

Washington has been trying for weeks to find a country where Mr. Saleh could live in exile to allow a peaceful transition from his rule of more than 33 years, since it does not want him to settle permanently in the United States.

Aides to the president told the Associated Press that Mr. Saleh had gathered top political, military and security officials and promoted Mr. Hadi to the rank of marshal. He is set to replace Mr. Saleh.

“I appeal to you to forgive my past mistakes,” one top ruling party official who was there quoted Mr. Saleh as saying. “Today, I leave the country in your hands,” he was quoted as saying.

Another aide who attended the meeting quoted Mr. Saleh as saying: “I am leaving this good country today. I want to bid you farewell from this place. I thank each one of you and offer my apology to the people and ask for forgiveness.”

A third official said Mr. Saleh declined to hold a public departure ceremony and preferred to offer his farewell behind closed doors.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.

After signing the deal in November, civil servants and employees have staged almost daily protests, each in front of their institution and agency demanding uprooting Mr. Saleh’s regime members from the top government positions.

Among the latest protests, army forces used armored vehicles to briefly close runways at the military air base, which is attached to Sanaa’s airport, early Sunday, demanding that the commander of the country’s air force be replaced. The commander is Mr. Saleh’s brother, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Saleh.

Later Sunday, Republican Guard forces, which Mr. Saleh’s son, Ahmed, commands, stormed the airport and fired rubber bullets and water cannons, dispersing the protesters and reopening the airport.

In the southern city of Taiz, security officers staged similar protests demanding the ouster of their commander.

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