x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Joy in the streets of Sana'a, though Saleh due back 'in two weeks'

As Yemeni president is treated in a hospital in Riyadh, opponents say his regime is over, while Saleh loyalists tell them: 'In your dreams'.

Anti-government protesters and tribesmen celebrate in Yemen's second-largest city, Taiz, a flashpoint of anti-regime demonstrations south of the capital Sanaa, yesterday took to the streets to hail the departure of President Saleh, who left for treatment in Saudi Arabia after being wounded. Mohammed Huwaid / AFP Photo
Anti-government protesters and tribesmen celebrate in Yemen's second-largest city, Taiz, a flashpoint of anti-regime demonstrations south of the capital Sanaa, yesterday took to the streets to hail the departure of President Saleh, who left for treatment in Saudi Arabia after being wounded. Mohammed Huwaid / AFP Photo

SANA'A // Yemeni opposition groups celebrated yesterday after Ali Abdullah Saleh left for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, but argument still raged over whether the embattled president's absence was temporary or permanent.

Opponents said he would never be allowed to return to Yemen, but his ruling political party said he would be back within days, and Saudi officials said he would return to Sana'a after a two-week convalescence.

And analysts said that even if Mr Saleh did hand over power it would be to members of his immediate family.

"Ali Saleh has gone and won't return unless he wants to be prosecuted for the crimes he committed against his people," said Naif al Qanis of the opposition Joint Meeting Parties coalition.

"The tyrannical and oppressive regime has finally ended and we will prevent the return of its leader."

Saleh loyalists said the opposition was "daydreaming". The senior ruling party official Zaid Thari said: "President Saleh did not travel to Saudi Arabia on a political trip. His visit is solely medical and he will return to Sana'a more powerful than he is now."

Mr Saleh, 69, wounded by an explosion as he prayed at a mosque inside his presidential compound on Friday, was transferred to Saudi Arabia late on Saturday but has not formally stood down.

He flew to Riyadh on a Saudi medical aircraft and was immediately taken to a military hospital, while a second plane carried members of his family,

"President Saleh underwent two operations that were successful," a Saudi official said. "The first was to remove a piece of shrapnel from his chest, and the second was neurosurgery to his neck.

"The next procedure will be for cosmetic surgical purposes. The period of convalescence is two weeks, after which he will return to Sana'a."

In Mr Saleh's absence the acting president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, ordered government troops to leave the battle-scarred Hasaba and Hadaa districts of the capital, where street fighting raged last week with the tribal forces of Sheikh al Ahmar.

Mr Hadi, the vice president, also extended a truce to Sheikh al Ahmar, head of the Hashed tribal bloc, in exchange for the sheikh's forces abandoning the state buildings they seized in last week's intense urban warfare.

Last night Sheikh al Ahmar agreed to the ceasefire on condition that government "attack units" withdraw from the area around his compound.

Mr Hadi was applauded for his early moves to quell violence yesterday, but many dismiss his chances of being the next head of state. Most observers point towards Mr Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, commander of the Republican Guard, as his likely successor.

A source close to the presidency said Mr Hadi and Ahmed held a high-level meeting with several military officials late on Saturday, without disclosing what was discussed.

Under the constitution, Mr Hadi replaces Mr Saleh in the president's absence. The opposition says Ahmed was preparing to take over from his father even before the popular uprising started.

Samy Dorlian, a French specialist on Yemen who teaches at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques at Aix-en-Provence, said: "The vice president cannot be the man for the post.

"If Saleh leaves power, it is not Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi who will take over, but power will be handed over to the president's sons and nephews who control the security services."

Mr Saleh's nephew Yahya controls the central security services and antiterrorism forces. Another nephew, Tariq, is the commander of the presidential guard and a third, Ammar, heads the national security forces.

The parliamentary opposition spokesman Mohammed Qahtan said Mr Saleh's sons must be "forced to hand power over to Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi. We are ready to co-operate with Abdrabuh but the problem is whether Saleh's children are ready to hand power over to him," Mr Qahtan said. A Yemeni analyst said that the deputy president, who comes from the country's south, unlike the northerner Mr Saleh, "has no political weight".

"There are now two strongmen in Yemen, Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh and [dissident general] Ali Mohsen," the analyst said.

The former has inherited his father's power base while the latter has the opposition's support after his First Armoured Division, which controls parts of Sana'a, defected in March.

General Mohsen's forces have been stationed near University Square, to protect anti-regime protesters who have camped out in the area they have dubbed "Change Square" since February.

Only Yemen's powerful neighbour "Saudi Arabia can play the role of arbiter between both sides," the analyst said.

According to a power transfer plan brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Mr Saleh was supposed to transfer power to Mr Hadi within 30 days in return for immunity from prosecution.

Although Mr Saleh refused to sign the agreement three times, there is talk that the GCC plan may be implemented even without him.

"The first stage of the GCC plan has already been completed which is that the president delegates his authority to his deputy. We are going to go forward with the second step which is to establish a unity government and prepare for a presidential vote in 60 days," said Abdulghani al Iryani, an independent analyst.

"The regime of Saleh has come to an end," said Mr al Iryani.

malqadhi@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse