Saleh recovering from head wounds

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, pauses during a rally organized by his supporters, in Sanaa on May 13, 2011. File photo: AP.  

Yemen’s wounded President accepted an offer from the Saudi king to travel there for medical treatment for burns and wounds from a splintered pulpit blown apart in a opposition rocket attack, but had not yet left Sana’a, the capital, by Saturday night.

A flurry of conflicting reports about President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s whereabouts and condition spread through the Middle East late Saturday after Yemeni government officials and opposition tribal leaders reported that Saudi King Abdullah had mediated a ceasefire in the raging conflict in Yemen.

King Abdullah intervened to tamp down what has become an all-out military conflict on his southern border. The capital and other areas of Yemen grew quiet for the first time in days after dawn Saturday, though the head of the tribal confederation battling Saleh’s forces accused them of not observing the ceasefire.

For months, Mr. Saleh has defied intense international pressure, including from longtime ally Washington, to step down. On several occasions he has agreed to leave power, only to step back at the last moment. Should he leave the country at this point, he might never return, given that large segments of the population and a powerful tribal alliance would try to engineer his ouster in absentia.

The extent of Mr. Saleh’s injuries has been a matter of intense speculation. When the rocket struck the mosque in his Presidential compound, he was surrounded by top government officials and his bodyguards. Eleven guards died and five of the officials who were standing next to the president were seriously wounded and taken to Saudi Arabia.

The President delivered an audio address, his voice laboured, but the images shown on Yemeni television on Friday after the attack were old.

King Abdullah waded into the conflict after nearly four months of largely peaceful protests seeking to depose Mr. Saleh spun out of control into an increasingly bloody civil conflict. Past ceasefires have not held and international diplomacy has so far failed to oust Yemen’s leader of 33 years.

Opposition tribesmen directly attacked Mr. Saleh for the first time when they landed the rockets on the mosque.

A secretary in Mr. Saleh’s office and a ruling party official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to reporters, said Mr. Saleh spoke to the Saudi monarch afterward.

While Mr. Saleh accepted the offer of treatment, the officials said, the President’s plane had not left Sana’a airport Saturday night.

Sheik Mohammed Nagi al-Shayef, a leader of the Saleh-allied Bakeel tribe, said he met with the President on Saturday evening at the Defence Ministry compound in the capital.

“He suffered burns but they were not serious. He was burned on both hands, his face and head,” Mr. al-Shayef told The Associated Press.

He said Mr. Saleh also was hit by jagged pieces of wood that splintered from the mosque pulpit. There were about 200 people in the mosque when the rocket landed.

Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi also said- “The President is still in Sana’a. He is in a good condition. There is no reason to transfer him outside the country.”

He told Al-Jazeera television that bandages on Mr. Saleh’s head for burns and scrapes prevented him from appearing on television as government officials had promised Friday night after the attack.

“He was targeted but God gave him a new life,” Mr. al-Janadi said.

Through the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, government and opposition forces exchanged rocket fire, damaging a contested police station. The rockets rained down on streets housing government buildings that had been taken over by tribesmen.

Since violence erupted in the city on May 23, residents have been hiding in basements as the two sides fight for control of government ministries and hammer one another in artillery duels and gunbattles, rattling neighborhoods and sending smoke billowing into the air above Sana’a.

An early signal that ceasefire might be in the works, arose on Saturday afternoon when, in the southern city of Taiz when the Republican Guard brigade that had occupied the streets of the southern city quietly left town and returned to base.

Taiz had been a focal point of anti-Saleh activism since the uprising began. The Republican Guard left Saturday without giving a reason after having violently cleared protest camps there last week.

An official from the Republican Guard’s 33rd brigade said gunmen clashed with the brigade overnight, destroying three of their vehicles. Meanwhile, officers and prominent city residents pressured Brig. Gen. Jibrah al-Hashidi to stop opposing the protesters, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under military rules.

The brigade issued no official statement as other military groups have done when defecting to the opposition. But its returning to base is significant because it lead a fierce crackdown on protesters earlier this week that killed at least 25 people, sparking international condemnation.

Late Saturday, the head of the tribal confederation whose fighters have been battling Mr. Saleh’s forces in the capital accused them of not observing the cease-fire. Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, the Hashid leader, said Mr. Saleh’s forces had not withdrawn from their positions in the city and were instead reinforcing their positions.

“We are respecting what we agreed upon under the guidance of the Saudi monarch to stop the bloodshed of innocents and bring safety for citizens based on our desire to bring security and quiet back to the capital, which is living through a terrible nightmare that Saleh’s regime has brought upon it,” Mr. al-Ahmar said in a statement.

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