Sunday, June 5, 2011

Exit of wounded Yemeni leader sets off celebration

June 5, 2011
By AHMED AL-HAJ, Associated Press
SANAA, Yemen – The departure of Yemen's battle-wounded president for treatment in Saudi Arabia set off wild street celebrations Sunday in the capital, where crowds danced, sang and slaughtered cows in hopes that this spelled a victorious end to a more than three-month campaign to push their leader from power.
Behind the festive atmosphere, many feared Ali Abdullah Saleh, a masterful political survivor who has held power for nearly 33 years, will yet return — or leave the country in ruins if he can't. Hanging in the balance was a country that even before the latest tumult was beset by deep poverty, malnutrition, tribal conflict and violence by an active al-Qaida franchise with international reach.
Saleh, who was taken overnight to a military hospital in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, underwent successful surgery on his chest to remove jagged pieces of wood that splintered from a mosque pulpit when his compound was hit by rockets on Friday, said medical officials and a Yemeni diplomat. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to release the information.
The stunning rocket attack, which the government first blamed on tribal fighters who in recent weeks turned against the president and later on al-Qaida, killed 11 bodyguards and seriously injured five senior officials worshipping just alongside Saleh.
While Saleh is away, Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is acting as temporary head of state, said the deputy information minister, Abdu al-Janadi. The minister said the president would return to assume his duties after his treatment, though experts on Yemeni affairs questioned whether a return is possible in the face of so much opposition.
"Saleh will come back. Saleh is in good health, and he may give up the authority one day but it has to be in a constitutional way," al-Janadi said. "Calm has returned. Coups have failed. ... We are not in Libya, and Saleh is not calling for civil war."
His sudden departure raised many questions, including whether his Saudi hosts would bless his return. The Saudis have backed Saleh and cooperated over the years in confronting al-Qaida and other threats, but they are now among those pressing him to give up power as part of a negotiated deal. Saudi Arabia has watched with concern the anti-government protests that have spread to other neighboring countries like Bahrain and is eager to contain the unrest on its doorstep.
The president's absence raised the specter of an even more violent power struggle between the armed tribesmen who have joined the opposition and loyalist military forces under the command of Saleh's son and other close relatives. Street battles between the sides have already pushed the political crisis to the brink of civil war.
In an attempt to cool the situation, the vice president offered through mediators to pull government forces back from the neighborhood of the capital where they've battled fighters loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, who heads Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid.
Al-Ahmar said in a statement he agreed to the deal, which requires his forces to leave the streets and government ministries they seized starting Monday.
In the streets of the capital, Sanaa, joyful crowds celebrated what they hoped would be Saleh's permanent exit.
Crowds danced, sang and slaughtered a few cows in what demonstrators have dubbed Change Square, the epicenter of the nationwide protest movement since mid-February calling for Saleh to step down immediately. Some uniformed soldiers joined those dancing and singing patriotic songs and were hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd. Many in the jubilant crowd waved Yemeni flags, joyfully whistling and flashing the "V" for victory signs.
"Who would have believed that this people could have removed the tyrant?" said 30-year-old teacher Moufid al-Mutairi.
Women in black veils joined demonstrators carrying banners that hailed Saleh's departure. One read: "The oppressor is gone, but the people stay."
But there were also fears that the president would attempt a comeback or try to transfer power to his son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard and remains in Yemen. Some worried Saleh and his allies could even try to leave the country in ruins if they feel there is no way to stay in power.
"Saleh is never true to his word," said al-Mutairi, the teacher. "If the medical reports are true that his wounds are light, then he will for sure return. Our challenge now is to remove the rest of the regime."
"If he returns, it will be a disaster."
Yemen's unrest began as a peaceful protest movement that the government at times used brutal force to try to suppress, killing at least 166 people, according to Human Rights Watch. It transformed in the past two weeks into armed conflict after the president's forces attacked the home of a key tribal leader and one-time ally who threw his support behind the uprising. The fighting turned the streets of the capital into a war zone.
Other forces aligned 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.
In Taiz, Yemen's second-largest city, dozens of gunmen attacked the presidential palace on Sunday, killing four soldiers in an attempt to storm the compound, according to military officials and witnesses. They said one of the attackers was also killed in the violence. The attackers belong to a group set up recently to avenge the killing of anti-regime protesters at the hands of Saleh's security forces.
Elsewhere in the south, gunman ambushed a military convoy, killing nine soldiers, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Saleh has been under intense pressure to step down from his powerful Gulf neighbors, who control a large share of the world's oil resources, and from longtime ally Washington. They all fear Yemen could be headed toward a failed state that will become a fertile ground for al-Qaida's most active franchise to operate and launch attacks abroad.
In a display of the kind of political maneuvering that has helped keep Saleh in power through numerous perils, he agreed three times to a U.S.-backed Gulf Arab proposal for ending the crisis only to back out at the last minute.
Now, Saleh's injuries and his treatment abroad provide him with what could turn out to be a face-saving solution to exit power.
"This is exactly what needed to happen," said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He needed to leave in order to get past this political deadlock that has been cursing Yemen for the past few months."
Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there is no chance of Saleh returning to Yemen and it's unlikely anyone linked to him can maintain power and control.
"I can't see any remnant of the saleh government staying in place after this," Nelson said.
The fact that powerful members of Saleh's family have remained behind in Sanaa suggests vigorous attempts to hold power will be made.
Significantly, military officials said Hadi, the vice president, met late Saturday night in Sanaa with several members of Saleh's family, including his son and one-time heir apparent Ahmed, who commands the powerful Republican 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.

Yemen may become threat to UK security, says Hague

By Joe Churcher, PA
June 5, 2011
Yemen risks becoming "a much more serious threat" to UK national security, Foreign Secretary William Hague warned amid fears it could descend into chaos.
Mr Hague accepted that the troubled Middle East country risked falling to pieces as its president went abroad for medical treatment to wounds sustained in a rebel rocket attack.
And he renewed his appeal to British nationals there to flee the violence while they still had the chance - warning they should not expect a Government-led emergency evacuation.
The prospect of a violent power grab mounted after president Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for urgent medical attention after the attack on his compound in the capital Sanaa.
He was reported to have taken his family with him and Mr Hague said it remained unclear whether he intended to return to the increasingly violent confrontations with tribal leaders.
Its history as a breeding ground for al Qaida terror attacks means the UK and allies have been particularly concerned to prevent Yemen becoming a failed state.
But Saleh has repeatedly refused to sign up to a mediated agreement tabled by neighbours in the Gulf Co-operation Council - leading to escalating violence.
Asked about the latest developments, Mr Hague told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show he was "very worried".
Successive British Governments had worked hard to achieve stability there, he pointed out, urging the president to agree the deal.
"We have not succeeeded in that but we will continue working very hard on that. It could become a much more serious threat to our own security," he went on.
In a fresh warning to Britons still in the country - believed to number a few hundred - he said they should leave immediately while commercial flights were still available.
"They should not assume that in these circumstances, we can safely conduct or would try to conduct an evacuation," he said.

In Yemen, celebrations and confusion after Saleh leaves

Fireworks lit up the sky last night after embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh left Yemen to Saudi Arabia for 'medical treatment,' but loyalist forces continue to battle tribal fighters.

By Jeb Boone, Contributor / June 5, 2011

Sanaa, Yemen

A myriad of colors lit up the sky in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, last night.

Celebratory fireworks were launched from Change Square as news broke of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure to Saudi Arabia for what the Yemeni Government called “medical treatment.”

Abd al-Rabo Mansur al-Hadi, former vice president, has been named acting president in Mr. Saleh’s absence.

The celebrations -- most intense among the thousands of protesters who've been living for months in tents just outside Sanaa University and in other camps around the country -- were interrupted at around 9 p.m., however, by the familiar sound of shelling.heard as artillery pounded the al-Habasa district of Sanaa where loyalist military forces and anti-government tribesmen have been battling for almost two straight weeks.

A cease-fire brokered by Saudi mediators earlier on Saturday had only held for a matter of hours. And while celebrations continued, residents and some protest leaders weren’t convinced that Saleh’s departure was the end of violence.

“This is not the end, by any stretch of the imagination,” says Jamal Nasser, spokesmen for the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change, Yemen’s largest protest organization. “I just don’t feel like celebrations are appropriate at this point.”

Too early to celebrate?

While Saleh took most of his family with him to Saudi Arabia, his son Ahmed, commander of the Republican Guard, and his nephew Yahyha, commander of the Central Security Forces, remained behind to continue Saleh’s military campaign against the tribesmen in Sanaa.

Some frustrated activists refuse to join the celebrations.

“Our revolution was hijacked by the tribes," says Shatha al-Harazi, a young Yemeni journalist and activist. "How can we establish a civil state if tribes still wield so much power? They forced Saleh out with weapons and we failed to force him out with peace.”

What's next?

What comes next in Yemen’s power transfer, ironically, seems to be in line with a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) power transfer deal that was rejected by the former president and protesters alike.

“The first step of the GCC initiative was to name al-Hadi as acting president. The opposition is now pushing for presidential elections. It seems as though the GCC plan will be put into play after all,” says Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani. “But I’m sure of one thing – Saleh is not coming back to Yemen.”

Sign up for our daily World Editor's Picks newsletter. Our best stories, in your inbox.

Economic woes

As celebrations continue across the country, more stoic citizens still worry about the state of Yemen’s economy.

“Saleh is gone, thank God,” says Hussein Mohammed al-Harazi, a resident of Sanaa’s old city. “But I still can’t find water or fuel.”

Yemen has also been beset by a foreign currency shortage, forcing up the cost of imports, especially wheat. Yemen imports 20 percent of its wheat supply in addition to a large number of basic food goods such as sugar.

The establishment of a new government may need to take place incredibly quickly is Yemen is to stave off economic collapse.

“If we don’t find a solution to these basic problems, the economy will collapse by Ramadan [in August],” says one senior western diplomat.