President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left Yemen to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after being injured in an attack on his palace, with news of his departure sparking celebrations among demonstrators in the cities of Sanaa and Taiz.
After denials that he would leave Yemen and uncertainty about his whereabouts, Saleh flew to Riyadh late Saturday on a Saudi medical plane with other officials injured in the attack on a mosque at his presidential compound.
Saleh is to receive treatment for his injuries, said to include shrapnel lodged below his heart and second-degree burns to his chest and face, the BBC reports. His wife and several other family members are said to have left the country with him.
The embattled Yemeni president leaves a country in turmoil, roiled by months of protests against his rule and a dramatic escalation in violence between loyalist forces and opposition-aligned tribesmen.
On Sunday, Yemeni youth celebrated what they said was the fall of Saleh’s regime, with demonstrations in the capital Sanaa and in the second-largest city of Taiz.
"Today, Yemen is newborn," young protesters sang in Sanaa's central square, which has been the epicenter of nationwide anti-regime demonstrations, Agence France-Presse reports. Protesters also danced and slaughtered cows in celebration, the Associated Press reports.
In the city of Taiz, hundreds of young people gathered to celebrate Saleh's departure, chanting "Freedom freedom, Ali has fled,” AFP reports.
On Friday, the president broadcast an audio message to assure the nation that he was in “good health” after the attack on his palace, but he did not appear in public and sounded groggy, GlobalPost’s Jeb Boone reports from Sanaa.
Government officials have accused opposition-aligned tribesmen of carrying out the attack on the presidential compound, but tribal leaders have denied responsibility. Initially the palace was thought to have been hit by rockets, but now there are reports that a bomb was planted, the BBC reports. According to an official count, 11 people were killed and 124 were injured
There are questions in Yemen about whether Saleh will return, and it is not immediately clear who will take over from him in his absence.
Under the constitution, Saleh is to be replaced by Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi. But Saleh’s eldest son Ahmad, commander of the elite Republican Guard and widely thought to have been groomed for power, remained in Yemen when his father left for Saudi Arabia.
Saleh has ruled for 33 years and become increasingly defiant in the face of protests calling him for him to step down. On several occasions he has agreed to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal that would see him hand over power to his deputy, but then has backed out.
Protests against Saleh’s rule began in January, and more than 160 people have been killed in the fighting that began May 23 and has brought Yemen to the brink of civil war.
Yemen is home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of the Osama bin Laden's militant network.
On Sunday there were reports that suspected Al Qaeda militants had killed nine Yemeni soldiers in two separate attacks on military convoys traveling in the southern province of Abyan.