The White House said Monday President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s absence from Yemen for medical treatment in the United States would aid a political transition that ends his three-decades of strong-arm rule.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney denied the decision to admit Saleh was part of a plan to influence events ahead of Yemen’s election in February, saying the issue was purely a question of medical necessity.
“The fact of the matter is Mr. Saleh’s request to travel to the US for medical treatment has been approved and the purpose of this travel is for medical treatment alone,” Carney said.
“We expect that he will stay for a limited time that corresponds to the duration of this treatment.”
While ruling out a behind-the-scenes effort to choreograph political change in Yemen, where an al-Qaeda insurgency is gathering strength, Carney argued that Saleh’s departure from Yemen would be beneficial.
“We at the same time believe that his absence from Yemen at this critical juncture will help facilitate a transition that completes the end of his rule, helps Yemen and ultimately has a positive effect on the rights and dignity of the Yemeni people.
“Our policy focus remains on preventing further instability and keeping that transition on track.”
On Sunday, Saleh gave a televised address apparently marking the end of his rule and appealed for forgiveness from the Yemeni people for “any shortcomings” during his 33 years in power.
“The president... is on his way to the United States to continue what is left of his medical treatment” for wounds sustained in a June bomb attack on his compound, SABA news agency said on its website.
In his speech, Saleh said he would return to Yemen but not as president, apparently signaling he aims to follow through on a Gulf-brokered transition plan which provides for his ouster.
Meanwhile Yemen’s military has sent extra forces to a town seized by Islamists last week after negotiations with the militant group’s leader broke down, residents and witnesses said on Monday.
Tanks and armored vehicles were making their way towards Radda, about 170 km (105 miles) southeast of the capital Sana’a.
A year-long uprising against Saleh has been punctuated by bursts of open combat between his troops and those of a rebel general and tribal militiamen, while militants have exploited weak government control to grab territory, notably in the southern province of Abyan.
Islamist militants entered Radda a week ago, led by Tareq al-Dahab, a relative of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, whom Washington accused of a main role in the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda and assassinated in a drone strike last year. Witnesses said the military had sent heavy armor to the town on Monday.
Neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United States - which long backed Saleh as a key to its “counter-terrorism” policy - fear political paralysis over Saleh’s fate could embolden al-Qaeda’s regional, Yemen-based wing.
They support plans to end his 33 years in power by granting him immunity from prosecution over the deaths of protesters in the uprising.
Saleh, formally handed power to his deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in November.
Talks fall through
Dahab had said he would withdraw from Radda on condition that a council was set up to govern the town under Islamic law and that several jailed comrades, including his brother Nabil, were released. But talks fell through.
“As we were leaving Radda we saw 15 tanks and more than 20 armoured vehicles heading for one of the military bases on the west side of town,” one witness called Abdallah said on Monday.
Another said soldiers at checkpoints outside the town informed him that the reinforcements were meant to back an attack on the town.
A tribesman involved in negotiating with Dahab on the government’s behalf said other tribesmen were taking positions in the town and getting ready to fight.
“The fighters are equipped with machine guns, mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-borne rockets. Shop owners have moved their goods into storehouses outside the town and the situation could explode at any moment,” he said.
Militants shot dead a prison officer on Monday in the province of Dhamar, just south of Sanaa, a security official told Reuters.
Earlier, a spokesman for the militant group Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic law) said militants had ambushed and killed Saleh al-Jabri, the head of the prison. The security official said his rank was that of officer.
A military committee set up to normalize the situation after Saleh stepped down called on military and security bodies to release all those detained during the anti-Saleh protests in the past year, the state news agency Saba said.
The World Bank on Monday lifted a funding freeze to Yemen and said it would resume relations with the new power-sharing government. It closed its office in March 2011 due to political unrest.
Hadi, whom parliament has endorsed as sole candidate in an election to pick Saleh’s successor next month, spoke on Sunday to U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who promised U.S. support, state news agency Saba reported.
Despite his departure, many Yemenis fear Saleh and his supporters will continue to hold sway over the country.
Hundreds of members of the air force gathered outside Hadi’s residence in the capital on Monday demanding the resignation of their commander, Saleh’s half-brother, whom they accuse of corruption.
Workers at the al-Anad air base in the southern province of Lahej went on strike and said they would not resume work until General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar resigned, a worker there said.