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Yemeni president Saleh transfers power, flies to Saudi Arabia
By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londono,
8:15 PMNAIROBI — Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh transferred authority to his deputy Saturday and flew to Saudi Arabia, raising the prospect that [YET ANOTHER] a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda had lost his grip on power and left behind a nation tumbling into chaos.
Saleh’s decision to leave the country, apparently to seek medical treatment for injuries suffered in a rocket attack on his palace Friday, makes it unlikely that he will return, several analysts said. His sudden departure leaves behind a nation on the verge of civil war and economic collapse, with a violent power struggle among rival tribesmen underway and no clear plan for a transition of power if Saleh were to permanently surrender office.
For months, Saleh had resisted intense pressure from within Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest nation, and from neighboring countries and the United States to step down. With an active al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, ambitious enough to claim the mantle of Osama bin Laden in the near future, Saleh’s departure could pose one of the most significant policy challenges for the Obama administration in the months ahead.
A Pentagon spokesman acknowledged late Saturday that the crisis in Yemen was already affecting U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.
“The current protracted political issues are having an adverse impact on the security situation in Yemen,” said Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, and the United States is “continuing to review and assess all aspects of our security assistance.”
But he indicated that Washington was already looking beyond Saleh’s rule. “Our shared interest with the Yemeni government in defeating al-Qaeda goes beyond one person,” Lapan said. The U.S. military has an unspecified number of counterterrorism trainers in Yemen, who the Pentagon has said remain in the country, although the civil unrest had affected their work.
In Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, an official in the president’s office confirmed that Saleh had left the country for Saudi Arabia and said that his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, had taken over his duties.
In Washington, a U.S. official said the situation was not entirely clear, but that the United States believes that Saleh had reached Saudi Arabia.
Christopher Boucek, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said violence in Yemen could become even more intense, given the animosity between Saleh’s supporters and those of the Ahmar clan, whose tribesmen have spearheaded the effort to topple Saleh.
“His son and nephews may try to finish off the Ahmars,” Boucek said. “The regime’s power lies in the military and security branches, the guys who have been fighting, and where do they go? They may think their only option is to fight.”
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, agreed that the next steps are unclear. “What happens with his family? Do his forces crumble? Who steps in to fill any vacuum?’’ Johnsen said. “At this point, there is no road map or someone very obvious waiting in the wings.”
Reports of Saleh’s departure fueled speculation that the injuries he suffered in Friday’s midday attack — when a rocket or mortar shell struck a mosque inside the sprawling compound where Saleh and other senior officials were praying — could have been more serious than the palace has suggested.
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