Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left his battered nation on his way to the U.S. for medical treatment after passing power to his deputy and asking for forgiveness for any “shortcomings” during his 33-year rein.

But in a sign that Mr. Saleh’s role as Yemen’s top power broker is likely far from over, he said he would return to Yemen before the official power transfer next month to serve as the head of his ruling party.

Mr. Saleh’s departure Sunday marks a small achievement in the months of diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and Yemen’s powerful Gulf neighbours to ease the nearly year-old political crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country. An active al-Qaeda branch there has taken advantage of the turmoil, stepping up operations and seizing territory.

After months of diplomatic pressure and mass protests calling for his ouster, Mr. Saleh signed a deal in November to transfer authority to his Vice-president in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Still, Mr. Saleh continued to exercise power behind the scenes, sparking accusations he sought to scuttle the deal and cling to power.

His departure could help the deal go forward.

Presidential spokesman Ahmed al-Soufi told The Associated Press that Mr. Saleh left Yemen’s capital Sanaa late Sunday on a plane headed for the Gulf sultanate of Oman. He did not say how long Mr. Saleh would remain there, but added that he would make “another stop before heading to the United States of America.”

A senior administration official said Ali Abdullah Saleh would travel to New York this week, and probably stay in the U.S. until no later than the end of February. U.S. officials believe Mr. Saleh’s exit from Yemen could lower the risk of disruptions in the lead-up to presidential elections planned there on Feb. 21.

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