Nation & World

Yemen tense amid reports that Saleh has left the country

SANAA, Yemen — Clashes continued in this Yemeni capital Saturday amid contradictory reports that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh may be traveling to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, plunging the country deeper into crisis as uncertainties grew about who was in charge, where Saleh was, and what kind of reaction to expect from protesters who've waged a four-month uprising to unseat him.

Saleh was injured Friday along with numerous senior officials in an explosion that occurred at the Yemeni presidential compound's mosque. The cause of the explosion remains unknown. Yemeni officials originally laid blame for the attack on forces loyal to the powerful Ahmar family.

The Ahmar family, however, denied culpability. Some have argued that the attack on the presidential compound was an inside job. Saleh's compound, widely considered to be the most secure building in the capital, lies in the south of the city, far from the northern neighborhood of Hasaba where clashes have been concentrated.

Saleh's medical condition remains uncertain. Despite earlier assurances by government, Saleh failed to appear to address the nation, instead issuing a short audio message.

Yemeni officials initially characterized Saleh's injuries as "minor cuts and bruises." However, reports indicated that the president's injuries were more serious. The BBC claimed that the Saleh suffered a shrapnel wound, while a sheikh loyal to the president said that he suffered non-life threatening burns to his neck and hands.

Saba, Yemen's state news agency, reported that numerous officials, including the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, were flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. Saleh's location, however, remained unclear.

Some news reports quoted Saudi and Yemeni officials as stating that the president was either in transit to or preparing to travel to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Saudi officials did not confirm the reports, while Abo Hanadi, the Yemeni vice Minister of Information, denied reports that Saleh was en route to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

Yemenis, whether skeptical or credulous, remained glued to the contradictory coverage. The mood here, already on edge from days of fierce fighting, remained tense Saturday. Numerous stores closed early, as many major roads were blocked with checkpoints. In the eyes of many, Saleh's transit to Saudi Arabia would be akin to a resignation from power.

"Amid the confusion, its best to remain skeptical," said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton-based Yemen analyst. "Saleh would have to have suffered a very serious injury for him to leave; if he leaves Yemen, it will be very hard for him to come back."

Despite a lull in fighting earlier in the day and the announcement of a weeklong, Saudi-brokered ceasefire between government forces and those loyal to Ahmar, the sound of shelling continued to reverberate, heightening fears that the country would witness greater unrest.

In Sanaa's Change Square, site of the anti-government sit-in where demonstrators have camped out for four months to call for Saleh's ouster from power, the mood remained edgy. In contrast to the scenes of jubilation that initially greeted news of the attack on the presidential compound, demonstrators remained calm, hesitant about what to believe.

"Personally, I think he's probably heading to Saudi and that he probably won't come back," said Ibrahim al-Kulani, an accountant taking part in anti-government demonstrations. "Then again, this is Ali Abdullah Saleh and anything is possible."

Reports Saturday indicated that Yemen's vice president assumed the duties of the president and commander of the Yemeni armed forces, as outlined in the country's constitution. However, the vice president is widely seen as a comparatively weak figure. Many speculated that power could remain in the hands of one of Saleh's powerful relatives. Saleh's son Ahmed Ali heads the elite Republican Guard, while nephews of the president are in charge of other powerful arms of the government.

Some anti-government leaders used the news as an opportunity to up their rhetoric, calling on opponents of Saleh to gather en masse Sunday throughout the country. Still, despite the possibility of the president's exit, many youth leaders remained clear that the removal of Saleh alone was not enough for them to declare victory.

"We didn't start this start this revolution to get rid of Ali Saleh alone, but rather the whole regime," said Hamza al-Kamili, a revolutionary youth leader. "We will continue until all of our goals are achieved, the top of which is building a civil, democratic country."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this report.)


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