Protesters danced, sang and slaughtered cows in the central square of Yemen’s capital yesterday to celebrate the departure of the country’s authoritarian leader for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after he was wounded in a rocket attack on his compound.
Saudi-owned television network al-Arabiya reported that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was undergoing surgery, but did not say for what. One of Saleh’s allies said the president, in his late 60s, was hit by jagged pieces of wood that splintered from the mosque pulpit when his compound was hit by a rocket on Friday.
There was no official announcement on who was acting as head of state. However, under Yemen’s Constitution, the vice president takes over for up to 60 days when the head of state is absent.
Yemeni Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi met with US Ambassador Gerald Michael Feierstein yesterday, a strong indication that he is in charge.
Saleh’s absence raised the specter of an even more violent power struggle between the armed tribesmen who have turned against him and loyalist military forces. Street battles between the sides have already pushed the more than three-month political crisis to the brink of civil war over this deeply -impoverished and unstable corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
However, for one day at least, the capital was celebrating. Protesters thronged Change Square in Sana’a, the epicenter of the nationwide protest movement since mid-February calling for Saleh to step down immediately.
Some uniformed soldiers joined those dancing and singing patriotic songs and were hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd. Many in the jubilant crowd waved Yemeni flags, joyfully whistling and flashing the “V” for victory signs.
A Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information, said Saleh left with his two wives and some of his children. The official said he and others learned about Saleh’s plans only after the president left. A Saudi medical official said his condition was “not good.”
Significantly, military officials said Hadi, the vice president, met late on Saturday night in Sana’a with several members of Saleh’s family, including his son and one-time heir apparent Ahmed, who commands the powerful presidential guard.