NEW YORK (AP) – The embattled president of Yemen arrived Saturday in the United States for medical treatment for burns he suffered during an assassination attempt in June.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh arrived at an unspecified location in the United States, according to the country’s foreign press office. His journey had taken him from Oman, through London.
The one-line Yemeni statement said Saleh was in the U.S. for a “short-term private medical visit.” His staff has said he is in the United States to be treated for injuries suffered during the assassination attempt. He was burned over much of his body and had shards of wood embedded into his chest by the explosion that ripped through his palace mosque as he prayed.
After months of unrest, Saleh agreed in November to end his 33-year-rule of the Arabian state.
His trip to the U.S. comes as Yemen, a key counterterrorism partner, prepares for an election on Feb. 21 to select his successor.
Human Rights Watch, which says it has documented the deaths of hundreds of anti-government protesters in confrontations with Saleh’s security forces, was outraged by the Yemeni president’s travel to the U.S. for medical treatment.
“It’s appalling that President Saleh arrives here for first-rate medical treatment while hundreds of Yemeni victims, assaulted by his security forces have neither proper medical care nor justice for the crimes they’ve suffered,” Balkees Jarrah, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in an emailed statement. “The Obama administration should insist those responsible for atrocities in Yemen be brought to the dock.”
Maneuvering and manipulation had been reliable tactics for Saleh throughout his rule over mountainous, semi-desert Yemen, mired in poverty and divided among powerful tribes and political factions. But his room to maneuver steadily narrowed when the Arab Spring revolts swept into Yemen last year. From late January 2011, hundreds of thousands of Yemeni marched in the streets nearly every day, despite crackdowns. After a particularly bloody shooting of protesters in Sanaa, many ruling party members, lawmakers, Cabinet ministers and, most importantly, powerful military generals and tribal leaders abandoned him, siding with the opposition.
It is unclear how long Saleh intends to remain in the U.S. In a speech before he left Yemen for Oman a week ago, he promised to return home before the election, but the U.S. and its allies have pressured Saleh to leave Yemen for good.
American officials don’t wish him to settle in the U.S., however, over concerns that it would be seen as harboring an autocratic leader accused by many of his countrymen of using violence to remain in power. Opponents have accused him of trying to interfere in Yemen’s new unity government, even after he supposedly relinquished authority two months ago. He spent three months previously in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, only to return to Yemen, prompting more protests.
Saleh’s travel plans in the United States have not been disclosed for security reasons. It wasn’t clear where he intended to stay while in the country, or where he would be receiving medical care.
He had been traveling on a chartered Emirates plane with a private doctor, several armed guards and relatives, according to an official in the Yemeni president’s office who spokes with the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the details.
The Obama administration agreed last week to allow Saleh to come to the U.S. temporarily for the medical treatment, a move aimed at easing the political transition in Yemen.
Saleh initially requested a U.S. visa in December, putting the Obama administration in the awkward position of either having to bar a friendly president from U.S. soil or risking appearing to harbor an autocrat with blood on his hands.
U.S. officials believe Saleh’s exit from Yemen could lower the risk of disruptions in the lead-up to presidential elections there.
The Yemeni embassy in Washington has said Saleh planned to return home in February to attend a swearing-in ceremony for the country’s newly elected president.
AP correspondent Jill Lawless in London and Ahmed Al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.
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