Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thousands celebrate on the streets of Yemen as president flees country to be treated for rocket wounds in Saudi Arabia

By Daily Mail Reporter

6th June 2011

* Analysts say President Saleh is unlikely to return to Yemen

Thousands celebrated on the streets of Yemen after the country's authoritarian leader fled the country after an attack on his presidential palace.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for urgent treatment after he was hurt in a rocket attack on a mosque in his compound in the country's capital, Sana'a.

Saudi-owned television network Al-Arabiya reported he was was undergoing surgery, but did not say for what. One of Mr Saleh's allies said the president, in his late 60s, was hit by jagged pieces of wood that splintered from the mosque pulpit when his compound was hit by a rocket on Friday.

In Sana'a protesters danced, sang and slaughtered cows to celebrate Mr Saleh's departure.

Some soldiers in their military uniforms joined those dancing and singing patriotic songs. Many in the jubilant crowd waved Yemeni flags, joyfully whistling and flashing the 'V' for victory signs.

Women in black veils joined demonstrators carrying banners that hailed Mr Saleh's departure. One read: 'The oppressor is gone, but the people stay.'

In Taiz, Yemen's second largest city, dozens of gunmen attacked the presidential palace, killing four soldiers in an attempt to storm the compound, according to military officials and witnesses.

One of the attackers was also killed in the raid, by a group set up to avenge killings of anti-regime protesters at the hands of Mr Saleh's men.

A Yemeni official said Mr Saleh had left secretly with most of his family. He said he and others had been kept in the dark about the president's plans until after he had left.

A Saudi medical team was flown to Yemen to treat the president after Friday's attack, but advised him that he needed to get specialist attention.

He was taken, along with several other senior regime leaders, including the prime minister, to be treated for injuries sustained during Friday's attack.

Mr Saleh's departure raises the spectre of a violent power grab in the impoverished country which has been shaken by months of protests calling for his ousting.

Officials said Yemen's constitution calls for the vice president to take over in the absence of the president.

Vice-president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi met with U.S. Ambassador Gerald Michael Feierstein, the strongest indication yet that he is in charge.

But the country remains gripped by a violent insurgency after formal tribal allies of Mr Saleh turned against him and transformed the streets of the capital Sana'a into a war zone.

Other forces rose against Saleh at the same time. There were high-level defections within his military, and Islamist fighters took over at least one town in the south in the past two weeks.

Mr Saleh blamed the tribal rivals for the attack on his compound that killed 11 bodyguards and wounded at least five senior government officials.

Mr Saleh had been first reported to have suffered only minor injuries to his neck after the attack. But his sudden departure to Saudi Arabia suggests that the president's injuries are worse than first thought.

Among others hurt in the attack were both prime minister Ali Muhammad Mujawar and his deputy Rashad Al-Alimi, alongside the speaker of the country's parliament.

Initial reports suggested Al-Alimi suffered serious injuries and was unconscious, while Nooman Dweid, the governor of capital city Sanaa, was the most badly hurt.

It was the first time that tribesmen have targeted President Saleh's palace in nearly two weeks of heavy fighting with government troops in the capital.

Their response came after government forces launched an intense artillery barrage at the homes of two tribal leaders and a top military general who also joined the opposition.

The abrupt departure of Mr Saleh and much of his family followed intense pressure to step down from his powerful Gulf neighbours and the U.S., a longstanding ally.

They fear the chaos could plunge the country into anarchy and undermine the U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida's most active branch, which operates in the country.

Yemen's unrest was inspired by the uprisings across the Arab world, which have already led to the downfall of governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

It already has cost the government control of some remote provinces, and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and other Islamist extremists have exploited the turmoil to bolster their position in the Arab world's poorest country.

'Saleh was an inconsistent partner in the war against al Qaida,' said Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

'But at least he was partner part of the time.'

Mr Saleh, who is in his late 60s, had agreed to transfer power several times, only to step back at the last moment.

His injuries have now provided him with what could turn out to be a face-saving solution to exit power.

A Yemeni official said Mr Saleh left with his two wives and some of his children. The official said he and others learned about Mr Saleh's departure plans only after the president left.

Before leaving, Mr Saleh did not issue a decree putting his vice president in charge. A terse statement from his office only said he had arrived in Saudi Arabia for medical tests and that he was in good health.

However, a Saudi medical official said his condition was 'not good'.

Significantly, military officials said vice president Hadi met late last night in Sana'a with several members of Mr Saleh's family, including his son and one-time heir apparent Ahmed, who commands the powerful presidential guard.

Others who attended the meeting included two of the president's nephews and two half brothers. All four head well-equipped and highly trained units that constitute the president's main power base in the military.

That such powerful members of Saleh's family have been left behind in Sanaa suggests that the president's departure will not necessarily end the crisis in Yemen.

But analysts said it appeared unlikely Mr Saleh would return. The Saudis, in whose care he now rests, have repeatedly tried to persuade him to step down.

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