Veteran Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to the United States for medical treatment on Wednesday as his country prepared for elections next month for his successor, an Omani official said.
Saleh had been in the Gulf sultanate since Sunday with his wife and five of his children amid mounting speculation about his future.
After months of stalling, the Yemeni leader finally signed up to a Gulf-brokered transfer of power deal in November under which an early presidential election is due to be held on February 21.
Despite strong criticism from demonstrators who have kept up 12 months of protests against Saleh’s regime, Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi is expected to be the sole candidate under the deal struck with the parliamentary opposition.
Saleh suffered severe blast wounds from a bombing at the presidential palace in June last year and is scheduled to receive treatment at a New York hospital.
US ambassador Gerald M Feierstein said on Tuesday that Saleh had been granted a visa for purely medical reasons, but that his absence in the run-up to the election of his successor was in the interests of Yemen.
“We think that him not being here will help the transition, we think it will improve the atmosphere,” the ambassador said.
Saleh had been expected to travel to New York for treatment late last year, but aides said he cancelled the trip at the request of his General People’s Congress party.
Late last week, parliament approved a controversial bill granting Saleh blanket immunity from prosecution. He has been in power in Sanaa since 1978.
Feierstein said the decision to offer him immunity was key to ending the political crisis and avoiding civil war.
In response to a question, the State Department said “Saleh is still the president of Yemen and will be accorded those privileges and immunities accorded to any head of state until a new Yemeni president is sworn in following elections on February 21.”
The Yemeni embassy in Washington said Saleh will, following “a private medical visit” to the United States, return to “Yemen in February to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected president.”