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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cheers, gunfights in Yemen as Saleh goes to Saudi


Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounded in an attack on his palace, has flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, potentially offering a face-saving end to his three decade rule.

Yemeni ruling party official Tareq al-Shami said that Saleh would return to the country within days, but uncertainty about whether he would be able to maintain his grip after months of protests meant the risk of further turmoil remained high.

Some Yemenis celebrated what they hoped would be Saleh's permanent departure, but the jubilation was mixed with firefights and explosions in Sanaa, and gunbattles broke out in the city of Taiz, about 200 km (124 miles) south of the capital.

"People are worried about what will happen after Saleh's departure. They're most worried about a military coup or struggles for power within the army," Farouq Abdel Salam, a resident in the southern port city of Aden, said.

Acting President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi met military commanders, including Saleh's powerful sons and nephews, who remain in Yemen. Hadi also met the U.S. ambassador.

Worries are mounting that Yemen, already on the brink of financial ruin and home to al Qaeda militants, could become a failed state that poses a threat to the world's top oil exporting region and to global security.

Saleh has exasperated his former U.S. and Saudi allies, who once saw him as a key partner in efforts to combat Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, by repeatedly reneging on a Gulf-brokered deal for him to quit in return for immunity.

President Barack Obama's top counter-terrorism aide spoke on Saturday to the Yemeni vice president, the White House said, giving no details. Washington has called on Saleh to quit.

"I think this is just about the end of his match," Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst, said. "The Saudis are not going to bargain with him."

The world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, which shares a 1,500-km (950-mile) border with Yemen, has led efforts to negotiate a peaceful handover to fractious opposition groups.

But a Saudi-brokered ceasefire between rival clans and political elites appeared to break down on Sunday as heavy gunfire and explosions rang out in the capital Sanaa.


Witnesses said gunfire was heard in the Hasaba district, a focal point of fighting in recent weeks between Saleh's forces and members of the powerful Hashed tribe led by Sadeq al-Ahmar.

Youths celebrated in a central Sanaa square, singing patriotic songs and dancing. Elsewhere, the capital was quiet as residents fretted about what might come next.

"Our happiness will be complete once we're sure that Saleh won't come back," a resident at a local cafe said."

In the southern city of Taiz, thousands of people celebrated Saleh's trip to Saudi Arabia with a fireworks display, but Al Jazeera reported several people were wounded in heavy gunfire.

Leaving Yemen at a time of such instability, even for medical care, could make it hard for Saleh to retain power.

The true seat of power, following Saleh's departure, has yet to be decided. But Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, commands the elite Republican Guard and three of his nephews control the country's security and intelligence units.

The Saudi royal court said Saleh had arrived to be treated for wounds suffered in Friday's rocket attack on his presidential palace -- an assault that marked a major escalation in a conflict that has been sliding toward all-out civil war.

"These are the most difficult days and we're worried the coming days will be even more difficult," Sanaa resident Ali al Mujahid, 42, said.

Saleh, whose Saudi medical evacuation plane was met by a senior Saudi official, walked off the aircraft but had visible injuries on his neck, head and face, a source told Reuters.

Saleh was transferred to a military hospital after landing at King Khalid Air Base, a Saudi source said. He will have tests before surgery to remove shrapnel from his body, the source said, adding Saleh was also expected to have plastic surgery to mend wounds on his face and neck.

The rocket attack, which killed seven people, devastated the government. The prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and the speakers of both parliamentary chambers are being treated in Riyadh for injuries.

The latest violence was the bloodiest since pro-democracy unrest erupted in January and was sparked by Saleh's refusal to sign a power transfer deal.

Abdulla Ali al-Radhi, Yemen's ambassador to Britain, said of Friday's attack on the palace: "The rocket was devastating. It was a clear assassination attempt against the president."


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