WASHINGTON — Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, agreed to be flown to Saudi Arabia
on Saturday for urgent medical treatment a day after being wounded in a bold attack on the presidential compound, Saudi officials said, a move that would leave Yemen leaderless amid an intensifying political crisis.
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Analysts fear that a sudden departure by Mr. Saleh, after 33 years in power, would create even deeper chaos in Yemen, where the government has already lost control of some outlying provinces and Al Qaeda and other jihadists have appeared to exploit the political turmoil to move more freely. Saudi officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Saleh’s condition had worsened overnight and he had agreed to treatment in Riyadh, but they were not sure if his plane had yet left Sana. Yemen’s official news agency denied on Saturday that he had left the country. If he leaves, Mr. Saleh might have trouble returning to his country, some analysts said, given the violent struggle with powerful tribal rivals now under way in Yemen and the tremendous pressure he has faced at home and from abroad to step down. If he were to exit the political scene without a clear plan for political transition — such as the one Persian Gulf mediators have struggled to arrange in recent months — Yemen’s opposition factions might fight among themselves. Yemen’s sudden political vacuum puts tremendous pressure on Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s powerful neighbor and patron, which arranged a cease-fire late Friday with the tribal militia Mr. Saleh blamed for the attack on the palace earlier in the day, Yemeni officials said. Saudi Arabia has long played the role of kingmaker for its smaller, and infinitely poorer, neighbor. But Saudi leaders have seemed deeply unsure
about how to handle Yemen in recent months, as they struggle to calm the revolutionary energies across the region while trying to ease Mr. Saleh out of power. Six other high-ranking Yemeni officials who were wounded in the attack
were flown to Riyadh Saturday, Yemen’s official news agency reported,
including the prime minister. Government spokesmen had insisted that the president’s wounds were minor. The attack took place midday Friday, when what appeared to be a rocket or mortar shell struck a mosque in the presidential compound where Mr. Saleh and other high-ranking officials were praying. Mr. Saleh delivered a speech hours later, in which he blamed the Ahmar brothers, whose tribal militia has been fighting the government in the capital, Sana, for two weeks. Soon afterward, government forces began firing rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells on the house of Hamidh al-Ahmar, the Ahmar family’s political standard-bearer. A spokesman for Mr. Ahmar said that 19 people were killed in the attacks on his house. The Ahmars have denied any responsibility for the attack on the presidential compound. The shelling ebbed later in the day, after Saudi officials arranged a cease-fire, according to spokesmen from the Yemeni government and the
Ahmar family. “The public in Sana are overburdened over what has happened in the last week,” said Ahmed Sofan, a ruling party spokesman. “There is a cease-fire and I hope it will last.” Sadeq al-Ahmar, the eldest of Ahmar brothers, confirmed that the Saudis had arranged the cease-fire, and said he would respect it. But he added that the government had not followed through on its promises to remove security forces from the area surrounding the Ahmar compound in the
Hasaba neighborhood in northern Sana, where the fighting has been concentrated in the past two weeks. And on Saturday night, the boom of artillery fire could be heard again in the neighborhood, suggesting the cease-fire might be unraveling.
The fierce street-to-street fighting between the militia and the government had left at least 130 people dead, raising fears that more tribes could become involved and trigger a bloodier conflict.