Outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh will leave soon to Oman, en route to medical treatment in the United States, Yemeni officials said on Saturday, part of an American effort to get the embattled strongman out of the country to allow a peaceful transition from his rule.
Washington has been trying for weeks to find a country where Saleh can live in exile, since it does not want him to settle permanently in the United States. The mercurial president, who has ruled for more than 33 years, has repeatedly gone back and forth on whether he would leave.
The officials' comments Saturday suggested Oman, Yemen's neighbor, could be a potential home for him. Three officials said he would go, but they were divided on whether he would remain in exile in Oman or return to Yemen after treatment. His return, even if he no longer holds the post of president, could mean continued turmoil for the impoverished nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
After nearly a year of protests demanding his ouster, Saleh in November handed his powers over to his vice president and agreed to step down. A unity government between his party and the opposition has since been created. However, Saleh — still formally the president — has continued to influence politics from behind the scenes through his family and loyalists in power positions.
The U.S. does not want to take him in, concerned it would be seen by Yemenis as harboring a leader they say has blood on his hands for the killings of protesters. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates already have rejected Saleh, American officials said.
Senior ruling party figure Mohammed al-Shayef told The Associated Press that Saleh would travel "in the coming days" to Oman, then head to the United States for treatment of wounds he suffered in an June assassination attempt.
After treatment, Saleh would return to Yemen to head his People's Congress Party, said al-Shayef, who is also a prominent tribal leader. Another top party official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk of the plans, gave the same itinerary, though he said Saleh would pass through Ethiopia en route from Oman to the U.S.
Saleh himself has spoken in recent weeks of working as an opposition politician after he leaves the presidency.
However, an official in the prime minister's office said Saleh "is supposed" to return to Oman to stay after his U.S. treatment is completed.
The official said Saleh's powerful son Ahmed was currently in Oman, arranging a residence for his father. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk the press. It did not seem that Ahmed, who commands the elite Republican Guard that has been at the forefront of the crackdown on protests, would remain in Oman.
The unity government has been struggling to establish its authority in the face of Saleh's continuing strength in the country. Like Saleh's son Ahmed, Saleh's nephew also commands one of Yemen's best trained and equipped security forces, and the president's loyalists remain in place in the government and bureaucracy.
Saleh agreed to step down under a U.S.-approved and Gulf-mediated accord with the opposition in return for immunity for prosecution.
Yemen's parliament on Saturday approved the immunity law, a key step toward Saleh's formal retirement from his post. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi signed it into law later in the day.
Saleh is scheduled to hand over the presidency to his vice president on Feb. 21.
The law grants Saleh complete immunity for any crimes committed during his rule, including the killing of protesters during the uprising against his regime. However, parliament limited the scope of immunity for other regime officials and excluded immunity for terrorism-related crimes.
Initially, the law would have similarly given complete immunity to everyone who served Saleh's governments throughout his rule, sparking a public outcry and a new wave of protests. In response, the law was changed to grant them immunity only on "politically motivated" criminal acts. That apparently would not cover corruption charges.
Most protesters have rejected the accord entirely, saying Saleh should not be given immunity and demanding he be prosecuted.
Human Rights Watch said Saturday in a statement that the law allows senior officials to "get away with murder" and "sends the disgraceful message that there is no consequence for killing those who express dissent."