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updated 6/5/2011 8:53:28 PM ET 2011-06-06T00:53:28

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was recovering from an operation in Saudi Arabia to remove shrapnel from his chest while a truce between his troops and a tribal federation appeared to be holding.

Protesters, interpreting Saleh's absence as a sign that his grip on power was weakening, celebrated on the streets of Sanaa where they have been staging anti-government demonstrations since January.

"Who is next?," asked one banner held up by a protesters in a sea of red, white and black Yemeni flags, referring to the wave of uprisings in Arab world that has seen the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt toppled and inspired uprisings elsewhere.

Video: America's interest in the Yemen situation (on this page)

Saleh was wounded on Friday when a rocket was fired into his presidential palace in Sanaa, killing seven others and injuring his closest advisers. He is being treated in a Riyadh hospital.

He left as acting president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the vice president who is seen by many as having little power. Leaving Yemen at a time of such instability, even for medical care, could make it hard for Saleh to retain power.

In an attempt to cool the situation, the vice president offered through mediators to pull government forces back from the neighborhood of the capital where they've battled fighters loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, who heads Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid.

Al-Ahmar said in a statement he agreed to the deal, which requires his forces to leave the streets and government ministries they seized starting Monday.

Early on Monday, a truce between troops loyal to Saleh and the Ahmar group appeared to be holding, offering some respite after two weeks of fighting in the capital in which more than 200 people have been killed.

Key in the coming days will be any news of Saleh's condition and any signals from Saudi Arabia on whether he will be able to return to Yemen -- or whether Riyadh will apply pressure on Saleh to step down.

Steet celebrations
In the streets of the capital, Sanaa, joyful crowds celebrated what they hoped would be Saleh's permanent exit.

Crowds danced, sang and slaughtered a few cows in what demonstrators have dubbed Change Square, the epicenter of the nationwide protest movement since mid-February calling for Saleh to step down immediately. Some uniformed soldiers joined those dancing and singing patriotic songs and were hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd. Many in the jubilant crowd waved Yemeni flags, joyfully whistling and flashing the "V" for victory signs.

"Who would have believed that this people could have removed the tyrant?" said 30-year-old teacher Moufid al-Mutairi.

Women in black veils joined demonstrators carrying banners that hailed Saleh's departure. One read: "The oppressor is gone, but the people stay."

But there were also fears that the president would attempt a comeback or try to transfer power to his son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard and remains in Yemen. Some worried Saleh and his allies could even try to leave the country in ruins if they feel there is no way to stay in power.

"Saleh is never true to his word," said al-Mutairi, the teacher. "If the medical reports are true that his wounds are light, then he will for sure return. Our challenge now is to remove the rest of the regime."

"If he returns, it will be a disaster."

Slideshow: Political unrest in Yemen (on this page)

Yemen's unrest began as a peaceful protest movement that the government at times used brutal force to try to suppress, killing at least 166 people, according to Human Rights Watch. It transformed in the past two weeks into armed conflict after the president's forces attacked the home of a key tribal leader and one-time ally who threw his support behind the uprising. The fighting turned the streets of the capital into a war zone.

Other forces aligned against Saleh at the same time. There were high-level defections within his military, and Islamist fighters took over at least one town in the south in the past two weeks.

In Taiz, Yemen's second-largest city, dozens of gunmen attacked the presidential palace on Sunday, killing four soldiers in an attempt to storm the compound, according to military officials and witnesses. They said one of the attackers was also killed in the violence. The attackers belong to a group set up recently to avenge the killing of anti-regime protesters at the hands of Saleh's security forces.

Elsewhere in the south, gunmen ambushed a military convoy, killing nine soldiers, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Opportunity for exit?
Saleh, a political survivor who has ruled the impoverished country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula for nearly 33 years, had so far managed to remain despite the defection of his top generals and ambassadors.

Saleh has exasperated his former U.S. and Saudi allies, who once saw him as a key partner in efforts to combat Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, by repeatedly reneging on a Gulf-brokered deal for him to quit in return for immunity.

Now, Saleh's injuries and his treatment abroad provide him with what could turn out to be a face-saving solution to exit power.

"This is exactly what needed to happen," said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He needed to leave in order to get past this political deadlock that has been cursing Yemen for the past few months."

Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there is no chance of Saleh returning to Yemen and it's unlikely anyone linked to him can maintain power and control.

"I can't see any remnant of the Saleh government staying in place after this," Nelson said.

The fact that powerful members of Saleh's family have remained behind in Sanaa suggests vigorous attempts to hold power will be made.

Significantly, military officials said Hadi, the vice president, met late Saturday night in Sanaa with several members of Saleh's family, including his son and one-time heir apparent Ahmed, who commands the powerful Republican Guard. Others who attended the meeting included two of the president's nephews and two half brothers. All four head well-equipped and highly trained units that constitute the president's main power base in the military.

"The kingdom (Saudi Arabia) will convince Saleh to agree to the Gulf-brokered exit so that the situation can be resolved peacefully and without bloodshed," said Saudi analyst Abdulaziz Kasem.

Saleh's fall could also give renewed impetus to protest movements around the region.

"The departure of Saleh is a turning point not just for the Yemeni revolution but also is a huge push for the current changes in the Arab region and is the start of the real victory," said Zaki Bani Rusheid, a leading figure in Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptian political scientist Hassan Nafaa agreed: "The 'Arab Spring' will continue, Arab people are in a state of total rejection of their current ruling systems."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Tensions high in Yemen amidst celebrations

Photos: July

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  1. A man prepares the grave of Hassan al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa, July 19. Fighting between government forces and opposition supporters erupted in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Monday, killing six people, among them al-Hora, opposition sources said. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, July 19. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl has ''will not leave'' written on her face during a rally to support Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa July 17. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Anti-government protestors shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, July 13. (Mohammed Hamoud / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An anti-government protester writes slogans on a wall using his own blood during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at Tagheer square in Sanaa on July 13. The words read "In my blood I protect Yemen." (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Girls light candles as they attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz July 9. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Yemeni anti-government protester displays bullets allegedly fired by supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration demanding Saleh’s ousting, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 8. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sit on stone pillars during a rally in support of President Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen, on July 8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged rallies around his vacant palace Friday after their leader's first TV appearance since being injured in a blast last month and leaving for treatment in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammed Al-Sayaghi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A supporter of Saleh kisses his picture as his supporters celebrate in Sanaa on July 7 after he appeared on television for the first time since he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saleh delivers a speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 7, making his first public appearance since he was wounded in an attack on his palace in Sanaa in June. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anti-government protesters join their hands and shout slogans demanding an end to the 32-year regime of President Saleh, in Sanaa on July 6. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A police vehicle is set ablaze during clashes between armed followers of the opposition and police in the southern city of Taiz on July 6. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A relative of victims of recent clashes talks to a member of the United Nations human rights investigation team, left, in Sanaa on July 5. The U.N. team arrived in Yemen last week to assess the situation in the country after months of unrest. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women recite prayers during a rally to demand the ouster of President Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on July 1. Tens of thousands of Yemenis turned Friday prayers into rallies for and against Saleh, who is recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt in June. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  2. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  3. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  4. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  5. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos
  6. YEMEN
    Karim Ben Khelifa
    Slideshow (20) Yemen in the spotlight

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