Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left his battered nation Sunday on his way to the U.S. for medical treatment after passing power to his deputy and asking for forgiveness for any "shortcomings" during his 33-year rein.
But in a sign that Saleh's role as Yemen's top power broker is likely far from over, he said he would return to Yemen before the official power transfer next month to serve as the head of his ruling party.
Saleh's departure marks a small achievement in the months of diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and Yemen's powerful Gulf neighbors to ease the nearly year-old political crisis in the Arab world's poorest country. An active al-Qaida branch there has taken advantage of the turmoil, stepping up operations and seizing territory.
After months of diplomatic pressure and mass protests calling for his ouster, Saleh signed a deal in November to transfer authority to his vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Still, Saleh continued to exercise power behind the scenes, sparking accusations he sought to scuttle the deal and cling to power.
His departure could help the deal go forward.
Presidential spokesman Ahmed al-Soufi told The Associated Press that Saleh left Yemen's capital Sanaa late Sunday on a plane headed for the Gulf sultanate of Oman. He did not say how long Saleh would remain there, but added that he would make "another stop before heading to the United States of America."
A senior administration official said Ali Abdullah Saleh would travel to New York this week, and probably stay in the U.S. until no later than the end of February. U.S. officials believe Saleh's exit from Yemen could lower the risk of disruptions in the lead-up to presidential elections planned there on Feb. 21.
The Obama administration faced a dilemma in deciding whether to let Saleh enter the U.S. after he requested a visa last month. It has long seen getting Saleh out of Yemen as an important step in ensuring the power transfer goes forward.
But some in the administration worried that welcoming Saleh would spark charges from the Arab world that the U.S. was harboring an autocrat responsible for deadly crackdowns on protesters.
To protect against this, the administration has sought assurances that Saleh will not seek to remain in the U.S.
An official close to Saleh said Sunday the president would undergo medical exams in Oman before heading to the U.S. The U.S. has forbidden him from any political activity in the U.S., the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorize to disclose diplomatic talks.
Saleh is likely seeking treatment for injuries sustained in a blast in his palace mosque last June 3 that left him badly burned. After the attack, Saleh traveled to Saudi Arabia for treatment, leaving many to suspect his power was waning. A few months later, however, he made a surprise return to Yemen and resumed his post.
Under the power transfer deal signed in November, Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is to be rubber-stamped as the country's new leader in presidential elections. The political parties that signed the deal agreed not to nominate any other candidates.
In a farewell speech Friday reported by Yemeni state media, Saleh said he was passing his powers to Hadi, whom he promoted to the rank of marshal.
Saleh portrayed himself as a patriot who "gave his life in the service of the nation," called for reconciliation and apologized for any mistakes.
"I ask for forgiveness from all sons of the nation, women and men, for any shortcomings during my 33 years in office," Saleh said according to Yemen's state news agency.
He also called on Yemen's youth, who have spearheaded the mass protests calling for his ouster and often faced deadly crackdowns by Saleh's security forces, to go home.
"I feel for you and call on you to return to your homes and turn a new page with a new leadership," he said.
Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University said Saleh's departure could help the power transfer deal progress, though it will do little to address protesters' demands for a fundamental change of how politics in Yemen works.
Throughout his rule, Saleh has put close members of his family and tribe in charge of key state institutions and security forces, Johnsen said. Leaving that network intact could allow Saleh to continue to shape events in Yemen, even without the title of president.
"I don't think we have seen the last of President Saleh," Johnsen said.
Inspired by popular uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, Yemenis took to the streets nearly a year ago to demand Saleh's ouster and call for democratic reforms. Saleh's security forces have met them with often deadly crackdowns, killing more than 200 protesters. Many others have been killed in violent clashes between armed groups that support the protesters and security forces.
Al-Qaida's active Yemeni branch has also taken advantage of the security collapse to seize territory in the country's south, even taking control of a town 100 miles from the capital Sanaa earlier this month.
The protests have continued despite the power transfer deal, which many say falls far short of their demands. They also reject the immunity clause, saying they want to see Saleh tried for his alleged role in the protester deaths.