Injured Yemeni leader accepts Saudi offer for care
Conflict could impact U.S. efforts to stem al-Qaida
Saturday, June 4, 2011
SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's injured president accepted an offer from the Saudi king to travel there for medical treatment for burns and wounds from a splintered pulpit blown apart in a opposition rocket attack, but had not yet left Sanaa, the capital, by Saturday night.
A flurry of conflicting reports about President Ali Abdullah Saleh's whereabouts and condition spread through the Middle East late Saturday after Yemeni government officials and opposition tribal leaders reported that Saudi King Abdullah had mediated a cease-fire in the raging conflict in Yemen.
Abdullah intervened to tamp down what has become an all-out military conflict on his southern border. The capital and other areas of Yemen grew quiet for the first time in days after dawn Saturday.
For months, Saleh has defied intense international pressure, including from longtime ally Washington, to step down. On several occasions he has agreed to leave power, only to step back at the last moment. Should he leave the country at this point, he might never return, given that large segments of the population and a powerful tribal alliance would try to engineer his ouster in absentia.
The extent of Saleh's injuries has been a matter of intense speculation. When the rocket struck the mosque in his presidential compound, he was surrounded by top government officials and his bodyguards. Eleven guards died and five of the officials who were standing next to the president were seriously wounded and taken to Saudi Arabia.
The president delivered an audio address, his voice labored, but the images shown on Yemeni television Friday after the attack were old.
Abdullah waded into the conflict after nearly four months of largely peaceful protests seeking to depose Saleh spun out of control into an increasingly bloody civil conflict. Past cease-fires have not held and international diplomacy has so far failed to oust Yemen's leader of 33 years.
Opposition tribesmen directly attacked Saleh for the first time when they landed the rockets on the mosque.
A secretary in Saleh's office and a ruling party official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters, said Saleh spoke to the Saudi monarch afterward.
While Saleh accepted the offer of treatment, the officials said, the president's plane had not left Sanaa airport Saturday night.
Sheik Mohammed Nagi al-Shayef, a leader of the Saleh-allied Bakeel tribe, said he met with 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. There were about 200 people in the mosque when the rocket landed.
Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi also said: "The president is still in Sanaa. He is in a good condition. There is no reason to transfer him outside the country."
He told Al-Jazeera television that bandages on Saleh's head for burns and scrapes prevented him from appearing on television as government officials had promised Friday night after the attack.
"He was targeted but God gave him a new life," al-Janadi said.
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 city 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 above Sanaa.
An early signal that cease-fire might be in the works, arose Saturday afternoon when, in the southern city of Taiz when the Republican Guard brigade that had occupied the streets of the southern city 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 lead a fierce crackdown on protesters earlier this week that killed at least 25 people, sparking international condemnation.
In Washington, the White House called on all sides to stop the fighting, which has killed more than 160 people.
"Violence cannot resolve the issues that confront Yemen, and today's events cannot be a justification for a new round of fighting," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
President Barack Obama's Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser, John 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. He vowed to work with Yemen's powerful neighbors to stop the violence.
Washington fears the chaos will undermine the Yemen government's U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida's branch in the country, which has attempted a number of attacks against the United States. Saleh has been a crucial U.S. ally in the anti-terror fight, but Washington is now trying to negotiate a stable exit for him.
Germany said Saturday it had ordered the immediate closure of its embassy in Yemen "because of current developments."
"The embassy team that is still on the ground will leave the country as soon as it is possible and safe," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
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 Sanaa and other cities.
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, known as the Hashid. The confederation is grouped around 10 tribes across the north.
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.
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