Yemeni protesters in Sanaa shout slogans while holding a defaced portrait… (Reuters )
Reporting from Sana, Yemen, and Baghdad — Yemen's embattled president left the country for treatment of injuries suffered in a rocket attack, a dramatic turn after two weeks of heavy fighting that signaled a drive by Saudi Arabia to quell the chaos on its southern border and could result in a change of leadership.
A source close to the Saudi government said President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived late Saturday in Saudi Arabia for treatment. Yemeni officials also confirmed that the Saudis had brokered a truce in the fighting that has racked the capital.
But it was far from clear that Saudi intervention would calm the situation. Despite the truce agreement, shelling broke out again late Saturday in a district of Sana that is home to Saleh's main rivals.
What started months ago as a movement to force Saleh, who has been in power nearly 33 years, to allow greater freedom has deteriorated in recent weeks into a power struggle between the president and the powerful Ahmar brothers, who head Saleh's tribal confederation.
Saudi Arabia has watched with concern as the "Arab Spring" movements for democracy and reform rattled small countries along its border. Fearing Iranian meddling and unrest among its own Shiite Muslim minority, Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain in March to help that country's king, who like the Saudi royal family is a Sunni Muslim, put down demonstrations. The Bahrain protests were led by members of that country's Shiite majority.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is concerned about an Al Qaeda offshoot that has targeted Saudi officials, about tribal conflicts along the border, and about a possible flood of Yemeni refugees. In 2009, an Al Qaeda suicide bomber crossed from Yemen and nearly assassinated a Saudi prince. That same year, Saudi military forces pounded fighters of a tribal group that had crossed the border and killed a Saudi guard.
With the death of Osama bin Laden a month ago, the branch of Al Qaeda based in Yemen is considered the terrorist organization's most potent. U.S. authorities say an American-born cleric hiding in Yemen, Anwar Awlaki, inspired the 2009 attack at Ft. Hood, Texas, which killed 13 people. Yemen-based extremists also tried to bomb several cargo planes last year.
Many Yemenis resent Saudi involvement in their country, according to a 2009 U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks.
"Yemenis perceive the relationship as heavily balanced in favor of Saudi Arabia, which remains involved in Yemen to the extent necessary to counter the potential threat of Yemen's unemployed masses, poor security, unrest, crime and the intentions of foreign countries (Libya and Iran) that might create a threat on Saudi Arabia's southern border," the cable said.
Saleh has angered the Saudis at times in disagreements over border and policy issues.
Late in the evening a Yemeni spokesman acknowledged that Saleh had headed to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. While he could return, there was intense speculation in Sana that his departure might spur a change in the national leadership.
"President Saleh has accepted the offer from our dear king to come to Saudi Arabia and get the medical assistance he needs," said the Saudi source. "But more importantly, the Saudi leadership has reached out to all the various belligerent parties in Yemen and they have all given their personal promise and word to the king and the crown prince that they would abide by a truce and stop shooting and killing each other."
The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, later announced that Saleh had reached Saudi Arabia. He said that Saleh's vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, was taking over as acting president during his absence.
Also in Saudi Arabia were the prime minister, deputy prime minister and the speakers of both houses of parliament, who along with Saleh were injured in the rocket attack Friday, the source said.
In contrast with Saleh, the Saudi royal family has enjoyed warm relations with the Ahmar family. A U.S. government cable published by WikiLeaks said some Yemenis believed that the Ahmars received cash payments from the Saudi government.
But it was unclear how the Ahmar brothers or Gen. Ali Mohsen Ahmar, the commander of a large armored division who has broken with Saleh, would respond to the president's departure. Leaders of the Ahmar tribe previously said they would accept Hadi as interim leader, but that was before the heavy fighting erupted in Sana.
Likewise, no one knew if a peace initiative by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, could be revived. That plan, which Saleh had rejected, called for Hadi to serve as interim president until new elections. And it was unclear whether order could be restored in parts of the country where Al Qaeda militants and separatists had asserted themselves.
"God only knows," said the Saudi source.