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Yemenis Celebrate Saleh's Departure, Despite Uncertain Future

  • RFE/RL

WATCH: Thousands in Yemen have been celebrating the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Video by AP.

Yemenis were continuing to celebrate the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now recovering from an operation in Saudi Arabia to remove shrapnel from his chest.

Crowds danced and sang for a second day in Sanaa's Tahrir Square, which has been the focal point of demonstrations against Saleh's nearly 33-year rule.

Many antigovernment protesters said they believed his departure was permanent and marked the beginning of the post-Saleh era.

"We are saying from Tahrir Square that Ali Abdullah [Saleh] has gone and he will not come back," protester Amer al-Khamisi told Reuters. "Ali Abdullah is in the past and he will not come back. This is the end of the oppression."

The 69-year-old Saleh was wounded on June 3 by a rocket attack as he prayed at a mosque in his Sanaa compound. The attack, which Yemeni authorities blame on forces loyal to dissident tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, killed at least seven and seriously injured several of his closest advisers.

It followed two weeks of fighting in Sanaa between government forces and fighters loyal to Ahmar that have left some 200 people dead. More than 450 people are estimated to have been killed since the unrest erupted in January.

Respite From Fighting

A truce between the two sides announced on June 5 has brought some respite from the fighting, although Ahmar's office said three supporters were shot dead in the north of the capital the following day.

"For the moment, people try to find courage and not to engage in any battle which can [lead] to tribal conflicts," said Hamid, a 27-year-old public relations manager at a Sanaa university who gave RFE/RL only his first name out of fear for his safety. "Everyone tries to get away from such thing, because they are afraid to let the country plunge into civil war."

Saleh will reportedly stay in Saudi Arabia for two weeks -- one week for recovery and another for meetings.

Although Yemeni authorities said Saleh would resume his duties after his treatment, staunch opposition could prevent his return to Yemen, where his political rivals are already calling for a swift transition of power.

An opposition party coalition has said it supports transferring power to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is acting as temporary head of state during Saleh's absence.

But the future of Yemen, plagued by crushing poverty, complex rivalries among tribal leaders, and a local active Al-Qaeda wing, remains uncertain.

"I don't know what will happen," Hamid said. "Everyone is waiting for the president to come to Yemen, but no one knows what is going to happen. Everyone is worried about the situation, about what's going to happen now."

Saleh has angered the United States and Saudi Arabia -- two nations that had long backed him as an ally against Al-Qaeda -- by three times rejecting a Gulf-brokered deal for him to quit in return for immunity.

'Peaceful And Orderly'

In the United States, the White House has called for an "immediate transition" of power in Yemen. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that a swift transition "is in the best interests of the people."

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing earlier in the day that "the time is now to begin that peaceful transition towards a democratic process."

Saudis themselves are eager to contain a wave of antigovernment protests in the Arab world and may take advantage of Saleh's stay to pressure him into signing the transition deal.

But Saleh has so far clung on to power despite the defection of his top generals and ambassadors, and he and his allies are unlikely to relinquish power without a fight.

There are fears he will try to attempt a comeback or try to transfer power to his son Ahmed, who commands the powerful Republican Guard and was being groomed as his heir before the protests erupted.

Vice President Hadi met over the weekend with Ahmed and several other members of Saleh's family who also head military units loyal to the embattled Yemeni leader.

written by Claire Bigg, with agencies and additional reporting by RFE/RL's Kristin Deasy