Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is due to step down next month, arrived Saturday in New York on a politically loaded visit to seek medical treatment for bombing wounds.
The embattled leader flew from Oman to the United States with a brief refueling stop at Stansted Airport outside London, ending days of speculation about his whereabouts and travel plans.
“President Saleh arrived this evening in the USA for a short-term private medical visit,” Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, said in a statement.
He was expected to be taken to a hospital in New York where he is scheduled for treatment.
In addition to providing Saleh an opportunity to seek medical help, his departure is seen as helping to ease the transition in his country from three decades of his rule.
After months of bloody protests in Yemen, Saleh finally signed a power transfer deal in November that effectively ended his reign.
In London, a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed that Saleh’s plane had made a short refueling stop and welcomed the Yemeni leader’s exit.
“At a time of continuing unrest in Yemen and the threat of escalating violence, we see it as helpful for President Saleh to be out of the country in the run up to interim presidential elections in February,” the British spokesman said.
Saleh was seriously wounded in a bombing at the presidential palace in the capital Sanaa last June, after which he was treated in Saudi Arabia.
He had been in Oman since last Sunday, with his wife and five of his children, fueling speculation about plans. Earlier this week, he was mistakenly reported to have left Oman and his trip Saturday was highly discreet.
Human Rights Watch condemned the decision to allow Saleh onto US soil.
“It’s appalling that President Saleh arrives in the US for first-rate medical treatment, while hundreds of Yemeni victims are left devastated with next to no medical care, and certainly no justice for the crimes they’ve suffered,” Balkees Jarrah, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
President Barack Obama’s administration “should insist those responsible for atrocities in Yemen be brought to the dock.”
The US ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, said on Tuesday that Saleh had been granted a visa for purely medical reasons.
But the envoy added: “We think that him not being here will help the transition; we think it will improve the atmosphere.”
Saleh had been expected to travel to New York for treatment late last year, but aides said he canceled the trip at the request of his General People’s Congress party.
On January 21, parliament approved a controversial bill granting Saleh blanket immunity from prosecution. He has been in power in Sanaa since 1978.
Feierstein said the decision to offer him immunity was key to ending the political crisis and avoiding civil war.
The US State Department said: “Saleh is still the president of Yemen and will be accorded those privileges and immunities accorded to any head of state” until his deputy is sworn in as president in the February 21 election.
The Yemeni embassy in Washington said Saleh would, following “a private medical visit” to the United States, return to “Yemen in February to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected president.”