U.S. considering travel request from Yemen's Saleh

By Laura MacInnis

HONOLULU (Reuters) - The U.S. government is trying to decide whether to let Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh travel to the United States for medical treatment, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday.

Saleh was injured in a June assassination attempt that forced him into a hospital in Saudi Arabia, and transferred power to his vice president last month after months of protests that brought the Gulf country to the brink of civil war.

Earnest declined to say when a decision on whether to allow Saleh into the United States would be made, and denied a New York Times report that the embattled Yemeni president's petition was accepted and he could arrive at New York-Presbyterian Hospital as soon as the end of this week.

"U.S. officials are continuing to consider President Saleh's request to enter the country for the sole purpose of seeking medical treatment, but initial reports that permission has already been granted are not true," Earnest said in Hawaii, where President Barack Obama is vacationing.

Earlier on Monday, an Obama administration official said Saleh's office had contacted the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa to say the Yemeni leader wanted to get specialized care in the United States to treat injuries sustained in the assassination attempt.

The attempt on Saleh's life came after he tried to duck the power-transfer accord brokered by Gulf Arab nations, sparking street battles that devastated parts of the capital.


Hundreds of people were killed during months of protests seeking Saleh's ouster. The political deadlock reignited simmering conflicts with separatists and militants, raising fears that Yemen's al Qaeda wing could take a foothold on the borders of Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.

Allowing Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades, to get treatment in the United States could undercut Obama's message of supporting pro-democracy movements across the Arab world and condemning crackdowns on protests like those seen recently in Syria.

Embattled world leaders often travel to politically neutral Switzerland for medical care.

On Saturday, just hours after his forces killed nine people who had demanded he be tried for the killings of demonstrators over the past year, Saleh said he would leave Yemen and give way to a successor. He did not say when he would go.

Saleh suggested he would undergo medical tests in the United States but characterized the trip as one of temporary exile.

"I will go to the United States. Not for treatment, because I'm fine, but to get away from attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections," Saleh said. "I'll be there for several days, but I'll return because I won't leave my people and comrades who have been steadfast for 11 months."

Obama's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, called Yemen's acting leader on Sunday to stress the need for Yemeni forces "to show maximum restraint" with protests, Earnest said.

In his phone conversation with Yemeni Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Brennan also appealed for all sides of Yemen's political transition to avoid "provocative acts that could spur further violence."

Hadi told Brennan he would do his utmost to prevent further bloodshed, Earnest said, adding both officials agreed it was important to stick to the transition path leading to Yemen's February 21, 2012, presidential election.

"Mr. Brennan told Vice President Hadi that the United States remains a strong and fervent supporter of the Yemeni people in their quest to realize their richly deserved aspirations for security, political stability, representative government, and economic prosperity," Earnest said.

Hadi has urged Saleh's foes and loyalists to commit to a truce.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)