SANAA, Yemen – Protesters danced, sang and slaughtered cows in the central square of Yemen's capital Sunday to celebrate the departure of the country's authoritarian leader for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia after he was wounded in a rocket attack on his compound.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was taken to a military hospital in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, underwent successful surgery on his chest to remove jagged pieces of wood that splintered from a mosque pulpit when his compound was hit by rockets on Friday, said medical officials and a Yemeni diplomat.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to release the information.
Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was acting as temporary head of state, said the deputy information minister, Abdu al-Janadi. The minister said the president would return to assume his duties after his treatment.
"Saleh will come back. Saleh is in good health, and he may give up the authority one day but it has to be in a constitutional way," al-Janadi said. "Calm has returned. Coups have failed. ... We are not in Libya, and Saleh is not calling for civil war."
But in the streets of the capital, joyful crowds were celebrating what they hoped would be his permanent exit after nearly 33 years in power.
Saleh's absence raised the specter of an even more violent power struggle between the armed tribesmen who have turned against him and loyalist military forces. Street battles between the sides have already pushed the more than three-month political crisis to the brink of civil war over this deeply impoverished and unstable corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
But for one day at least, the capital was celebrating. Protesters thronged Sanaa's Change Square, the epicenter of the nationwide protest movement since mid-February calling for Saleh to step down immediately. Some uniformed soldiers joined those dancing and singing patriotic songs and were hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd. Many in the jubilant crowd waved Yemeni flags, joyfully whistling and flashing the "V" for victory signs.
"Who would have believed that this people could have removed the tyrant?" said 30-year-old teacher Moufid al-Mutairi. Women in black veils joined demonstrators carrying banners that hailed Saleh's departure. One read: "The oppressor is gone, but the people stay." Activist and rights lawyer Khaled al-Ansi said families and children were arriving in the square in party clothes.
"People have trickled in since dawn to the square. Some have not slept yet. It is like a holiday," he said.
But there were also fears that the president would attempt a comeback or that his son Ahmed, who heads the Republican Guard , would take power or even try to leave the country in ruins if he feels he has no way out. (AP)