SANA, Yemen — Yemeni protesters cheered Sunday the surprise late-night exit of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment and swore the man who has ruled their country for almost 33 years was finished.
“Yemen is reborn,” screamed thousands of demonstrators who have lived in front of Sana University in the capital for more than four months, weathering tear gas, police batons and AK-47 fire.
But even as they rejoiced, officials close to Saleh vowed he would return in days and his trusted lieutenants, including his son, held on to senior security positions.
A government official said Saleh intended to come home once he recovered from his medical treatment for injuries he received Friday when opponents of his government fired a rocket into the presidential mosque while he was at prayer.
In response, Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for a bloc of opposition parties, vowed that his coalition would do everything in its power to keep Saleh from re-entering Yemen.
“If Saleh comes back, there will be thousands of us at the airport to receive him,” said protester Marwan Noman, who vowed to remain in the demonstrators’ encampment until a new government is in place.
Saudi Arabia orchestrated the embattled president’s exit from Yemen, signaling the desert kingdom’s determination to stop its southern neighbor from spinning out of control — even if it means a change of leadership.
A source close to the Saudi government, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, predicted that Saleh would not be back in Yemen any time soon.
“I don’t see him returning,” the source said. “There will be a lot of work going on behind the scenes to ensure that.”
The Saudis had been trying for weeks to get the mercurial Saleh to step down. Instead he evaded signing an internationally backed agreement for a transfer of power two weeks ago and the next day plunged Sana into chaos by going to war with Sheik Sadeq Ahmar, the head of the president’s own powerful Hashid tribal grouping.
The Saudis were furious when Saleh backed out of the agreement to step down. “He double-crossed them when [the Saudis] thought they had a deal, which pretty much ended any chance that Riyadh would help him out,” said professor F. Gregory Gause, an expert on the Arab Gulf states at the University of Vermont.
Despite efforts to restrain him, Saleh could very well seek to fulfill his oft-repeated prediction that Yemen would collapse into anarchy without him. The wily president left behind his senior commanders and most trusted family members. His eldest nephew, Yahya Saleh, who commands Yemen’s Central Security Forces, remains in the country, as does the president’s eldest son, Ahmed, who comm ands the Republican Guard and special forces.
On Sunday, the two younger Salehs ordered their forces to maintain positions surrounding Sana’s Hasaba district, home to Ahmar. Yahya Saleh’s military checkpoints dotted the capital.
Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, considered a weak political player, has taken over as acting president during his boss’ absence. The 66-year-old career military man has been vice president since the end of the country’s civil war in 1994 and has remained loyal to President Saleh throughout his political career. Nonetheless, some of the president’s opponents believe they can manipu late him or press him to their side.
Some analysts hope that Saleh’s absence will provide Yemen a chance to pull itself back from its descent into intratribal fighting. What started months ago as a protest movement seeking greater freedoms has been eclipsed in recent weeks by a power struggle, with the president on one side and Ahmar and his nine brothers on the other.
The fighting has marked an end to agreements that held Yemen together since 1978 when Saleh took power, with the backing of his rival’s late father, Sheik Abdullah Ahmar, and the current commander of the 1st Armored Division, Gen. Ali Mohsen Ahmar, who is not related.
Gen. Ahmar broke with Saleh in March because of the president’s attacks on protesters. He has stayed on the sideline, seeking to protect demonstrators and watching the battle between Saleh and Sadeq Ahmar unfold. However, he might now make his own power play. The bad blood between the Salehs and the Ahmar brothers appeared likely to grow worse.
“There is much room to ignite further conflict. As such, there must be an immediate de-escalation of tensions between these … warring sides,” said Yemen expert April Alley, with the International Crisis Group. She urged a revival of the original regional initiative for the vice president to serve as interim leader until new elections.
Already, troubles erupted Sunday. Fighting broke out in the southern city of Taiz as Republican Guard troops and Central Security Forces opened fire on activists celebrating the president’s exodus. Residents of the city and surrounding villages defended the demonstrators, clashing with government troops.
“They’ve been fighting for several hours and now the armed residents have surrounded the Republican Palace,” said a resident, who was holed up in his home as explosions echoed in the background.
Special correspondents Craig and Boone reported from Sana and Times staff writer Parker from Baghdad. Staff writer Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.