SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left his battered nation Sunday 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 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.
Saleh’s departure marks a small achievement in the months of diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and Yemen’s powerful Gulf neighbors to ease the nearly year-old political crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country. An active al-Qaida 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, Saleh signed a deal in November to transfer authority to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Still, Saleh continued to exercise power behind the scenes, sparking accusations he sought to scuttle the deal and cling to power.
Presidential spokesman Ahmed al-Soufi told The Associated Press that Saleh left Yemen’s capital Sanaa late Sunday on a plane headed for the Gulf sultanate of Oman.
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 Saleh’s exit from Yemen could lower the risk of disruptions in the lead-up to presidential elections planned there on Feb. 21.
The Obama administration faced a dilemma in deciding whether to let Saleh enter the U.S. after he requested a visa last month. It has long seen getting Saleh out of Yemen as an important step in ensuring the power transfer goes forward.
But some in the administration worried that welcoming Saleh would spark charges from the Arab world that the U.S. was harboring an autocrat responsible for deadly crackdowns on protesters.
To protect against this, the administration has sought assurances that Saleh will not seek to remain in the U.S.
An official close to Saleh said Sunday the president would undergo medical exams in Oman before heading to the U.S. The U.S. has forbidden him from any political activity in the U.S., the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorize to disclose diplomatic talks.
Saleh is likely seeking treatment for injuries sustained in a blast in his palace mosque last June 3 that left him badly burned. After the attack, Saleh traveled to Saudi Arabia for treatment, leaving many to suspect his power was waning. A few months later, however, he made a surprise return to Yemen and resumed his post.