SANAA // President Ali Abdullah Saleh asked his people for forgiveness in a farewell speech yesterday shortly before leaving Yemen to seek medical care in the United States.
"I will go to the United States for treatment and will then return as head of the [ruling] General People's Congress [GPC]party," the Saba news agency quoted Mr Saleh as saying.
"I ask for forgiveness from all my people, men and women, for any shortcomings during my 33-year-long rule."
Mr Saleh, 69, said he would return to take part in the appointment of his deputy, Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, as president following an election on February 21, Saba reported.
Last night, an official close to the presidency told Agence-France Press (AFP) that "the Yemeni president left Sanaa one hour ago," without specifying Mr Saleh's destination. Diplomats in Sanaa, however, said that Mr Saleh's eldest son Ahmed - who commands the Republican Guard - was "already in Oman" to prepare for his father's visit.
"He is expected [in Oman] within two hours. My information is that he is not going to spend the night here. But that may change", a Omani government official said last night.
A GPC official, Sultan Al Barakani, told AFP last week that the president, who remains in office on an honorary basis, would visit Oman before travelling to New York for treatment on injuries he received in a bombing at the presidential palace last June.
Mr Saleh's departure came a day after parliament adopted a law giving him "complete" immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down under a transition deal brokered in November by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. The opposition signed the GCC transition deal last April, but Mr Saleh repeatedly stalled, triggering months of political deadlock.
In his farewell speech yesterday, Mr Saleh described parliament's approval of the law, and the endorsement of Mr Hadi as the only candidate in the February election, as a "good achievement".
The law also grants Mr Saleh's aides limited immunity.
He apologised for any wrongdoing and mistakes during his reign, saying they were not intentional.
"I beg your pardon and I apologise to all the Yemeni citizens," Saba news quotes Mr Saleh as saying.
"The poor youths [who have continued] sit-ins for 11 months, go back to your homes and families and open up a new page with the new leadership. I feel sorry for you," Mr Saleh said.
Aides to the president said that Mr Saleh had gathered top political, military and security officials for his farewell speech and announced the promotion of Mr Hadi to the rank of marshal.
The immunity legislation has drawn wide condemnation from young protesters who have seen hundreds of their compatriots killed by Mr Saleh's security forces and loyalists since the uprising against his rule broke out in January 2011.
Yesterday, tens of thousands of Yemenis gathered in cities including Sanaa, Taiz, and Hodiedah, denouncing the legislation and demanding Mr Saleh and his aides be prosecuted for the killings of protesters.
"No immunity, no protection… we will execute the mass killer," the protesters in Sanaa chanted. "Immunity is a betrayal to the blood of martyrs ... no deals at the expense of martyrs," some banners read.
In Taiz, crowds denounced the new law and warned they would sue the unity government.
Qasem Al Sabri, the father one of the victims and chief of the Taiz-based Khoulod Organisation for the Families of Martyrs and Injuries, said the group would sue the cabinet and the parliament "for being partners in the crime."
"No power on earth can give Saleh and his gang immunity except us, the relatives of the martyrs. We will pursue the killers before local judiciary and if it rejects or fails, we will seek the international criminal court," Mr Al Sabri said. He said his son Saleem, 21, was shot dead in September during a peaceful protest in Taiz.
The UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has also criticised the immunity law, arguing it neglects the rights of the victims.
Mr Benomar on Saturday called on parliament to enact a "transitional justice and reconciliation" law that would allow victims to be heard and make claims for compensation as well as get the political prisoners released.
Meanwhile, Sanaa's airport was closed yesterday by troops demanding the removal of their commander, Major General Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmar, a half-brother of the president.
* With reporting by AFP and AP