US, Saudis race to finalize transfer of power in Yemen
SANA, Yemen — With the wounded president out of Yemen, the United States and Saudi Arabia scrambled yesterday to arrange a power transfer ensuring an end to his decades-long rule. But a top official said President Ali Abdullah Saleh, recovering in Saudi Arabia, would return home within days, a step almost certain to reignite violence.
A return by Saleh probably would spark intensified fighting between his forces and opposition tribesmen determined to topple him.
Both sides’ fighters are deployed in the streets of the capital, and a cease-fire brokered by Saudi Arabia a day earlier was already starting to fray, with clashes killing at least six.
Saleh was rushed late Saturday to the Saudi capital for treatment after being wounded in a rocket attack on his palace amid two weeks of fighting in Sana. His departure raised cheers from protesters who have been turning out in the streets by the hundreds of thousands since February demanding his ouster. To them, it seemed inevitable he would be unable to come back.
But Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is acting leader in the president’s absence, told European ambassadors yesterday that “Saleh’s health is improving greatly and he will return to the country in the coming days,’’ the state news agency reported. Saleh underwent surgery to remove shards of wood from his chest and treat heavy burns on his face and chest.
A renewal of fighting could push the impoverished nation into outright civil war. The United States fears that Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen could exploit the turmoil to strengthen its presence in the country, which it has used as a base for plotting two attempted anti-U.S. attacks.
“We are calling for a peaceful and orderly transition, a nonviolent transition that is consistent with Yemen’s own constitution,’’ US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “We think an immediate transition is in the best interests of the Yemeni people.’’
Furious diplomatic efforts were underway involving the Saudis, the United States, the Yemenis, and Gulf Arab nations to work out a transfer of power, a US official said. He likened the complex process to “four-dimensional chess.’’ The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The focus is on reviving a US-backed deal mediated earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of Gulf Arab nations including Saudi Arabia. Under the deal, Saleh would retire, hand power to his vice president, a unity government between his party and the opposition would be formed, and presidential elections would be held within two weeks.
In the past weeks, Saleh refused three times to sign the deal. As he was being evacuated for surgery over the weekend, he defied heavy Saudi pressure and refused to even sign a presidential decree formally transferring his authorities to Hadi, a sign he was intent on coming back.
Saudi Arabia pressed Saleh yesterday to sign the deal. After a Cabinet meeting headed by King Abdullah, the Saudi government expressed its “hope that the initiative be signed . . . to get Yemen through the crisis, preserving its security, stability, and unity.’’
The kingdom wields enormous influence with Saleh, providing his regime and many of Yemen’s tribes with substantial financial aid. But it is unclear how far the Saudis would go to push him to accept the deal or prevent him from returning to his homeland. The kingdom and the United States have been deeply reluctant to enter into an open clash with a longtime ally.
The original agreement called for Saleh to remain in office for 30 days after signing. But the Yemeni opposition says the aim now is to have an immediate resignation, make the transfer of power to the vice president official, and move on with the deal’s provisions for a new government.