Five days after he was severely wounded in a strike on his palace, Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains in critical condition and his chances of survival are “unclear,” a U.S. official said on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Yemen has fallen into chaos, and even if Saleh recovers, “he won’t be in any condition to lead.”
Saleh was wounded on Friday while praying in the Al-Nahdayn mosque in his presidential compound. A statement from the Yemen Embassy in Washington on Wednesday said that Saleh’s condition “is stable and continues to improve.... President Saleh will return to Yemen from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to reassume his duties soon after he recovers.”
But, in fact, “Saleh’s burns are very bad, his condition is very dire, and it’s unclear whether he can survive, much less govern,” said the U.S. official, who would divulge the estimate only on condition of anonymity. Other key members of Saleh's government, including the prime minister and parliamentary speaker, were also hurt.
There have been myriad reports speculating about Saleh's condition. According to the Associated Press, Saleh, who already underwent a series of surgeries in Saudi Arabia this week, also suffered bleeding in his brain. An adviser to Saleh told The Wall Street Journal one operation was to remove shards of wood from his chest, and said doctors believe he'll need six more surgeries in the coming weeks.
Despite a Saudi-brokered cease-fire, the country remains besieged by protests and a near-state of civil war. Hundreds of armed tribesmen took control of part of Yemen's second-largest city, Taiz, security officials told the AP on Wednesday.
U.S. and Saudi officials are working to expedite a political transition. The U.S. ambassador in Sanaa spoke this week with the country’s vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. Hadi, who is now nominally in charge, could theoretically oversee the agreement that would lead to Saleh’s resignation.
Saleh’s third refusal to sign this agreement, which would lead to a transitional government and eventual presidential elections, was the unsuccessful result of weeks of mediation by the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council. His defiance fueled a volatile security situation in the country.
“There is an enormous amount at stake in Yemen, obviously,” Toner said Wednesday. “The ambassador would certainly raise our concern about the level of violence over the last week or two after President Saleh backed away from signing the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement.”
“I think we’ve had a consistent message both publicly and privately in regard to Yemen,” Toner continued. “Now that Saleh [departed] for Saudi Arabia, where he continues to receive medical treatment, this isn’t the time for inaction. There is a government that remains in place there and they need to seize the moment and move forward.”
Washington is especially worried that extremist Islamist groups in Yemen, in particular al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, will exploit the chaos, but U.S. intelligence experts are uncertain whether the terrorists will benefit from it. “On one hand, you could think that maybe AQAP will take advantage of this. But one could also argue that nobody is focused on them in Yemen right now,” said the official, who was referring to an official U.S. update on Saleh and Yemen’s turmoil delivered overnight.
So far, Toner said the U.S. is “encouraged by what we’ve heard from the acting president.” Counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen “goes beyond one individual” and could be expanded to include the acting president, he added.
The U.S. has suspended its counterterrorism training program for Yemeni forces in the country until the security situation improves, a Pentagon spokesman said this week.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report misstated how many days it's been since Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was severely wounded.
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