SANAA/JEDDAH (Reuters) – Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in good health after an operation for injuries sustained in a rocket attack and is unlikely to undergo further surgery, a Yemeni diplomat in Riyadh said on Wednesday.
Saleh, 69, was wounded on Friday when rockets struck his Sanaa palace, killing seven people and wounding senior officials and advisers in what his officials said was an assassination attempt. He is being treated in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Saleh was initially said to have received a shrapnel wound, and his vice president was quoted on Monday as saying the president would return to Yemen within days.
Yemeni and U.S. officials said on Tuesday that Saleh was in a more serious condition, with burns over roughly 40 percent of his body.
But a senior Yemeni diplomat in Saudi Arabia said Saleh was improving and a further operation was not seen as necessary at this stage.
“I visited him yesterday evening and he was good. He talked to us and asked about the Yemeni expatriates and he is better than the others who were injured. He is very good and talks. He was sitting on a chair,” said Taha al-Hemyari, head of Yemeni Community Affairs at the Riyadh embassy.
“Maybe within the next hours the supervising doctor will release a statement about his condition.” Saudi newspaper al-Watan cited diplomatic sources saying another operation on Saleh was still possible.
Saudi officials say it is up to Saleh whether he returns home but they, and their Western allies, may want to revive a Gulf-brokered transition deal under which the Yemeni leader would quit in return for immunity from prosecution.
In the capital Sanaa, a ceasefire was holding between government forces loyal to Saleh and tribesman of Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar of the powerful Hashed tribe, who have turned against their former ally. Over 200 people were killed and thousands fled in two weeks of fighting.
But thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Yemeni vice president’s residence on Tuesday, demanding the acting leader form a transitional council to create a new government.
Around 4,000 demonstrators in Sanaa, who have been demanding Saleh to step down for five months, called for a “million-man march” for him to stay in Saudi Arabia.
The volatile situation in Yemen, which lies on vital oil shipping lanes, alarms Western powers and neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia, who fear that chaos would enable the local al Qaeda franchise to operate more freely there.
They see Saleh’s absence for medical treatment in Riyadh as an opportunity to ease the president out of office after nearly 33 years ruling the impoverished Arab nation.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday called for a peaceful and orderly transition in Yemen. British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday urged the vice president to work with all sides to implement the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement and begin political transition.
Saudi Arabia is worried by the activities of the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has staged daring if not very effective attacks on Saudi and U.S. targets.
The army said it had killed dozens of Islamist militants including a local al Qaeda leader in the southern town of Zinjibar, capital of the flashpoint Abyan province. A local official said 15 soldiers had been killed in the battles for control of the town seized by militants some 10 days ago.
Some of Saleh’s opponents have accused the president of deliberately letting AQAP militants take over Zinjibar to demonstrate the security risks if he lost power.
The fighting has reduced Zinjibar, once home to more than 50,000 people, to a ghost town without power or running water.
Saleh has defied pressure to accept the transition plan brokered by the Saudi-led GCC. Three times, he has backed away from signing it at the last minute.
“The transition seems to be on track as per the GCC initiative. There will be many obstacles down the road, but without Saleh’s destructive presence, we can overcome them,” said Yemeni political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani.
The future of Yemen, where shifting alliances of tribal leaders, generals and politicians compete for power, is uncertain. Saleh’s sons and relatives remain in the country, commanding elite military units and security agencies.
Other contenders in a possible power struggle include the well-armed Hashed tribal federation, breakaway military leaders, Islamists, leftists and an angry public seeking relief from crippling poverty, corruption and failing public services.