US ambassador to Yemen: Saleh's absence positive

January 24, 2012 - 4:05 PM
Mideast Yemen

Protestors react after receiving the news of the departure of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Sanaa to Oman in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 22, 2012. A spokesman for Yemen's embattled president says Ali Abdullah Saleh has left the country for the Persian Gulf country of Oman. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Yemen said Tuesday that President Ali Abdullah Saleh's absence from the battered country will help its political transition.

Gerald Feierstein also denied reports the U.S. was looking for a country where Saleh could live in exile, saying Saleh can return to Yemen if he chooses.

Saleh left Yemen Sunday for the Gulf sultanate of Oman on his way to the U.S. for medical treatment related to burns sustained after a bomb blast in his palace mosque last year.

Before leaving, Saleh passed power to his deputy as part of a U.S.-backed deal brokered by Gulf nations seeking to end the country's nearly year-old political crisis. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is set to be rubber-stamped as the country's new leader in a presidential election on Feb. 21.

Feierstein said Saleh will leave Oman for the U.S. in the next few days and that the length of his stay will be determined by doctors. Saleh was granted a visa solely for medical reasons, Feierstein said, adding that his absence at this time is positive.

"We think that him not being here will help the transition," he said. "This is not the reason he asked for the visa and this not the reason we gave the visa. We gave the visa for medical treatment."

White House officials said previously that Saleh's request to travel to the U.S. caused a dilemma. Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 33 years though a combination of sly politics and violence, was long considered a U.S. ally in the battle against Yemen's active al-Qaida branch, which has been linked to attacks on U.S. soil.

At the same time, officials worried the U.S. would face criticism in the Arab world for appearing to harbor an autocrat whose security forces have repeatedly used deadly force to repress demonstrations.

Before granting Saleh a visa, Washington sought assurances that he would not seek to remain in the U.S. after his treatment.

And on Tuesday, Feierstein denied previous reports that the U.S. was looking for a third country where Saleh could live in exile.

"In terms of where he goes afterward, we do not have any information on that," he said. "The only thing that we have heard from him is that he intends to come back to Yemen. We are not involved in any discussion with any countries where he might go after his treatment."

Feierstein also spoke highly of the Gulf plan to remove Saleh from power, saying it could prevent further violence the Arab world's poorest country.

Human rights groups have criticized the deal because it granted Saleh and anyone involved in his government immunity from prosecution. Many of the protesters who have taken to the streets for nearly a year to call for his ouster want to see him tried for his alleged role in deadly crackdowns on demonstrations.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have worked to ensure a peaceful transition of power, fearing that further chaos could destabilize the region and allow al-Qaida to operate freely. The group has already seized a number of towns in Yemen's south and last week occupied the town of Radda, 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of the capital Sanaa.

Late Tuesday, however, a tribal leader involved in negotiating with the militants said they had withdrawn, leaving the town in the control of two prominent sheiks.

Tribal leaders have been trying to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal for the al-Qaida-linked militants for days.

Negotiator Ahmed Ali Kalaz said the group's leader, Tariq al-Dahab, originally refused to leave unless authorities released 15 detained members of the group and declared the area an "Islamic emirate."

Authorities said they could release the men, and al-Dahab and his 200 armed men surprised everyone by leaving the city Tuesday.

While much of Saleh's regime has remained in tact throughout the uprising, with many of his relatives still in charge of government institutions, mutinies have been spreading calling for the ouster Maj. Gen. Mohammed Saleh, the head of Yemen's air force and Saleh's half brother.

Soldiers at an air base in the Hadramawt province joined the mutiny Tuesday, bringing to five the number of bases across the country calling for the commander's removal.

The continued turmoil has aggravated Yemen's humanitarian situation.

UNICEF said Tuesday that the number of malnourished children under the age of five has risen in the last year to around 750,000. In some parts of the country of 20 million people, the number of children suffering from malnutrition has doubled from the level in 2000, the group said.

Out of the 300,000 people displaced inside the country, 60 percent are children, UNICEF said.

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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed reporting from Cairo.