Protesters cheer Yemeni leader's departure

Anti-government protesters spray foam and wave flags as they celebrate President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday, June 5, 2011. AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

SANAA, Yemen — Protesters danced, sang and slaughtered cows in the central square of Yemen's capital Sunday to celebrate the departure of the country's authoritarian leader for medical treatment after he was wounded in a rocket attack on his compound.

There was no official announcement on who was acting as head of state. But under Yemen's constitution, the vice president takes over for up to 60 days when the head of state is absent. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi met Sunday with U.S. Ambassador Gerald Michael Feierstein, the strongest indication yet that he is in charge.

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Yemen's conflict began as a peaceful uprising that the government at times used brutal force to suppress. It transformed in recent weeks to a more violent struggle for power when formal tribal allies of President Ali Abdullah Saleh turned against him and transformed the streets of the capital Sanaa 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. Saleh blamed the tribal rivals for the attack on his compound Friday that killed 11 bodyguards and wounded at least five senior government officials in addition to the president.

The protesters celebrated Sunday at Sanaa's Change Square, the epicenter of a nationwide protest movement since mid-February calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down immediately after nearly 33 years.

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.

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

Activist and rights lawyer Khaled al-Ansi said families and children were arriving in the square in party clothes.

"People have trickled in since dawn to the square. Some have not slept yet. It is like a holiday," he said.

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 officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. 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.

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 Qaeda's most active franchise to operate and launch attacks abroad.

Saleh's injuries provided him with what could turn out to be a face-saving solution to exit power.

A Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said Saleh left with his two wives and some of his children. The official said he and others learned about Saleh's plans only after the president left. A Saudi medical official said his condition was "not good."

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

The president's departure was shrouded in extreme secrecy and many in the government did not know of his early Sunday departure until he had actually arrived in Saudi Arabia.

Significantly, military officials said Hadi 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 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.

For one thing, fighting could continue between the tribal forces and pro-regime units led by loyal members of Saleh's inner circle. In his more than three decades in power, Saleh administered an elaborate patronage system to ensure the loyalty of military officers and some of those beneficiaries would be tempted to continue the fight in the hope of keeping the perks they had enjoyed under the president.

If Saleh's departure causes the regime to collapse, tribal chieftains would want to take credit for the ouster of the regime and get a dominant role in the country's future. Given the conservative politics of tribal leaders, that could well place them on a collision course with the youth groups that have for months staged peaceful demonstrations in Sanaa and across much of the country to demand Saleh's ouster and political reforms.

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