Bloomberg News

Yemenis Cheer Wounded Leader Saleh’s Flight to Saudi Arabia

June 06, 2011

(Updates with opposition comment in fifth paragraph, overnight clashes in eighth.)

June 6 (Bloomberg) -- Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis cheered the departure of wounded President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia even as government spokesmen said he would soon return after receiving medical treatment.

Saleh and other members of his government, including the parliament speaker, the prime minister and two of his aides, were being treated in the Saudi capital of Riyadh for injuries they sustained in a June 3 rocket attack on a mosque in the presidential compound.

The attack followed months of violence between Saleh’s forces and protesters demanding the president’s resignation after 33 years in power, inspired by successful revolts against longtime leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. Fighting has escalated in the past two weeks as gunmen supporting Sadiq al-Ahmar, leader of the country’s most influential tribe, battled with security forces in the capital, Sana’a.

Abdu Janadi, the deputy information minister, said from Sana’a that Vice President Abduraboo Mansur Hadi was taking over Saleh’s duties “until the president returns.” Tareq al-Shami, a ruling-party spokesman, denied reports in local media that a transition is being planned while Saleh and other top officials are abroad.

Transfer of Power

Yemen’s Joint Meeting Parties, the main opposition coalition, will support a transfer of power to Hadi “in line with the constitution and the Gulf Cooperation Council plan,” the group’s spokesman, Mohammed Qahtan, said in a phone interview today. If that doesn’t happen, the Joint Meeting Parties will seek to form a transitional government, he said.

The GCC plan called for Saleh to step down within 30 days and turn leadership over to Hadi, in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Violence escalated after Saleh refused to sign it.

Hadi, the vice president, met U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein and discussed how all parties in Yemen could work to “prevent any acts of aggression against public and private” institutions, the state-run Saba news agency reported. Saleh has been a U.S. ally, cooperating with efforts to fight the al-Qaeda affiliate operating from his country.

Gunfire and explosions continued to be heard overnight in the northern part of the capital, where Saleh’s forces have been fighting with those loyal to tribal leader Sadiq al-Ahmar, even after the two sides agreed to a truce brokered by Saudi Arabia.

‘Ready to Fight’

Three people were killed as armed men in plain clothes fought near the vice-president’s house with soldiers from a division that has defected to join the protesters, said Khalid Mohammed, a witness to the clashes.

With most of the government out of the country and Sana’a embroiled in intermittent inter-tribal gun battles, there is an urgent need for a transition, said April Longley Alley, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that seeks to prevent deadly conflicts.

“The two sides are currently mobilized on the street, poised ready to fight,” Alley said in a telephone interview. “The immediate priority is accomplishing a strong cease-fire and de-escalating the two sides.”

There were conflicting reports about the extent of Saleh’s injuries. Government officials said he sustained only facial scratches, and state television aired a phone call from him in which he said he was “OK.” Al Arabiya television reported that Saleh was undergoing surgery to remove shrapnel from his chest and that he regained consciousness after the operation.

Facial Burns

Saleh walked from the plane and had signs of burns on his face and chest, according to a correspondent for Al Arabiya. He was accompanied by about 35 people and was admitted to a military hospital, it said. A second plane carrying about two dozen members of his family arrived later, Al Jazeera said, without saying where it obtained the information.

The state Saba news agency quoted an unidentified official denying that Saleh’s family had departed Yemen.

Saleh blamed al-Ahmar’s family for the attack on his compound, a charge that the tribal leader denied.

Al-Ahmar’s office said in an e-mailed statement that he agreed to a cease-fire in Sana’a that was requested by two emissaries sent by Hadi. The statement said al-Ahmar agreed to withdraw his fighters from government buildings provided the vice president removes military troops from the region where al- Ahmar’s house is located.

Fireworks and Songs

Protesters in the northwest Sitteen area of the capital cheered Saleh’s absence with fireworks, songs and chants. They issued a statement calling on Yemenis to celebrate “the return of joy to all corners of Yemen that was robbed” by Saleh. They urged reconciliation among factions and called for the establishment of a presidential council to form a government.

Forces loyal to the president countered the celebrations with violence, killing one person and wounding three others in the shelling of a protest camp in the city of Taiz, said Fuad Ali, a witness. The injuries and death occurred when a shell exploded at a shop, Ali said.

Bushra al-Maktari, a protest organizer, said by telephone that security and army forces fired at the camp, where tens of thousands were celebrating Saleh’s departure. Gunfire and blasts also continued to be heard in the eastern part of the capital Sana’a. Al-Jazeera reported two dead and 10 injured in the shelling of Taiz, in the country’s south.

--With assistance from Mohammed Hatem in Sana’a, Tamara Walid and Zahra Hankir in Dubai and Nadeem Hamid and Zaid Sabah Abd Alhamid in Washington. Editors: Phil Serafino, Mark McCord, Ben Holland, Louis Meixler.

To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu Nasr in Dubai at dabunasr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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