Saleh is not stepping down but will return to Yemen, Saudi official says


Yemen's beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounded in shelling of his compound in the capital Sana’a, arrived late Saturday in Riyadh for treatment but has not stood down, a Saudi official said.

"President Saleh has arrived in Riyadh for treatment, but he will return to Yemen," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In Sana’a, a presidential palace source confirmed his departure but refused to say any more.

Under Yemen's constitution, Mr. Saleh will be replaced during his absence by Deputy President Abdel Rabbo Mansur Hadi.

But uncertainty about whether his sons and nephews would try to maintain a grip on power following months of protests against Mr. Saleh's rule meant the risk of further turmoil remained.

Mr. Hadi met with US ambassador to Yemen Michael Feierstein and was slated to meet members of the military and Mr. Saleh's sons, Al Arabiya television said citing sources. It was the first indication Mr. Saleh's powerful sons had not left the country.

Mr. Saleh has refused to give up the power he has held for nearly 33 years despite four months of angry and violent protests against his rule.

He notably refused to sign a plan worked out by the Gulf Arab monarchies, headed by Saudi Arabia, for a peaceful transfer of power.

Mr. Saleh, 69, arrived aboard a Saudi medical aircraft while a second plane carried members of his family, the Saudi official said.

Mr. Saleh was immediately taken to the Saudi capital's military hospital, the official said.

Mr. Saleh was wounded on Friday when a shell hit the presidential palace's mosque during prayers, killing 11 and wounding 124 people, according to a government official.

In an audio statement broadcast on state television late Friday as he was being treated at the defense ministry hospital in Sana’a, Mr. Saleh said he was "well, in good health."

The embattled leader suffered "burns and scratches to the face and chest," an official said after the ruling General People's Congress said he was "lightly wounded in the back of the head."

His regime has blamed the attack on powerful dissident tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, whose fighters have been battling government forces in the Yemeni capital since a truce crumbled on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar and four other senior Yemeni officials wounded in the shelling of the presidential compound were also transferred to Saudi Arabia for treatment, Yemen's state news agency Saba reported.

A precarious calm meanwhile returned to Yemen's capital on Saturday as Mr. Saleh vowed to hit back after the mosque attack and a top general defected to the opposition.

Sporadic shelling and rocket fire rattled Al-Hassaba district of northern Sana’a where Mr. Ahmar has his base, witnesses said.

The clashes left one person killed and dozens wounded, a medical official said before the fighting subsided later.

A source close to Sheikh Sadiq said the powerful tribal chief was "committed to a ceasefire based on mediation efforts led by Saudi King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz despite the continuous shelling" by Saleh forces.

Meanwhile protesters celebrated what they said was the fall of the Yemeni regime.

"Today, Yemen is newborn," sang dozens of youths in Sanaa's University Square -- dubbed "Change Square" -- the epicentre of anti-regime protests that have raged against Saleh's rule since January.

"This is it, the regime has fallen," others chanted.

In Yemen's second-largest city Taez, a flashpoint of anti-regime demonstrations south of Sana’a, hundreds also celebrated, chanting: "Freedom freedom, Ali has fled."

Mr. Saleh, in power in Sana’a since 1978, hit out in his broadcast at "the sons of Al Ahmar" -- Sheikh Sadiq and his brothers -- and urged "the security forces to purge state institutions of these gangs."

Washington condemned the violence, including the palace attack, and called for Mr.Saleh to transfer power.

The White House also said that President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism aide spoke with Yemen's vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, not long after it was confirmed that Mr. Saleh was in Saudi Arabia.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined further comment on the contact between John Brennan and the Yemeni government.

Mr. Brennan visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last week to convey Mr. Obama's concern over the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, which has been used as a base by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attack the United States.

Russia expressed its concern at the "terrible civil war" in Yemen and urged the leadership to accept a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored plan for him to step down in return for immunity.

The parliamentary opposition on Saturday called for an "immediate" ceasefire and condemned "the dangerous twist which the clashes have taken in targeting the homes of citizens, the presidential palace, and vital installations."

After Mr. Saleh last month refused to sign the GCC deal, opposition tribesmen seized public buildings in Sana’a, sparking clashes with Mr. Saleh forces.

Amid the latest escalation, the European Union activated a mechanism to evacuate its citizens, and Germany ordered the closure of its embassy.

After Friday's presidential compound attack, Yemeni troops shelled the home of Sheikh Hamid, a brother of Sheikh Sadiq, in apparent retaliation.

Shelling in Hada neighborhood also targeted the homes of two other Ahmar brothers, Hemyar and Mizhij, and that of dissident General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar.

The attack on Sheikh Hamid's home killed 10 people and wounded 35, his office said.

More than 70 people have now been confirmed killed in the fighting in Sanaa since a fragile four-day truce collapsed between Ahmar tribesmen and Saleh loyalists.

In the flashpoint city of Taez, the commander of the 33rd armoured division, General Yahya al-Hashidi, joined protesters calling for Saleh to quit, a military official told AFP.

General Hashidi's division controls Yemen's southwest which includes the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the strategic entrance to the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea.

Nationwide, more than 200 demonstrators have been killed since the anti-Saleh protests erupted, according to an AFP tally based on reports from medics and rights activists.

(Sara Ghasemilee, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at [email protected])