Absent Saleh still president of Yemen, government says (UPDATE)

Absent Saleh still president of Yemen, government says (UPDATE)

Details added (first version posted at 20:41)

President Ali Abdullah Saleh is still the legitimate ruler of Yemen, a government minister said Sunday, after the country's opposition vowed to prevent him from returning to the country from Saudi Arabia, where he is undergoing medical treatment, dpa reported.

Medical sources in Saudi Arabia said Saleh was out of the operating theatre where he underwent a chest operation in the military hospital in Riyadh to remove a piece of shrapnel lodged near his heart, in an attack on his presidential palace in Sana'a on Friday.

He is expected to undergo cosmetic surgeries for burns in his neck and face later.

"Saleh is still the legitimate ruler of Yemen. We are in a liberal age," said deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi. "Power transfer will be done in a democratic way."

"Calm and stability has gradually begun to return to Yemen," al-Janadi told reporters in Sana'a.

Saleh, a close ally of the United States in the war on terror, has for months been facing calls to step down as the country descended into tribal fighting. He has been in power for 32 years.

Meanwhile, protesters in Yemen vowed to continue demonstrating until Saleh and other officials are permanently removed from power.

"Bringing down the regime is not only the removal of Saleh and his family from power, it is the removal of an entire political, social, economic and intellectual power structures," a group of activists called the Youth of the Revolution for Change said in a statement online.

The statement called for the formation of a civilian presidential council and interim government to lead the country through a transitional period and towards democratic elections.

An official in the ruling party said the embattled president would return to Sana'a "within days," according to Al Arabiya broadcaster.

Tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets in celebration after Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia, raising expectations among his opponents that he may not return.

Sana'a-based activist Shatha al-Harazi said "the fact that Saleh left the country at this critical time is a great victory."

"Protesters are singing and celebrating," she told the German Press Agency dpa. "However, people are still worried."

Some activists noted that members of Saleh's family still hold senior security and government positions. But others expected the president's departure to be permanent.

"The fact that most of the military institutions are now supporting the protesters rules out (the possibility) that he might come back," said a Taiz-based doctor and activist, who asked to be identified only as Khaled.

"There might be resistance from Saleh's supporters, but it will not last long," he added.

Saleh's deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansur, has taken on executive duties in the president's absence.

Mansur then met with the US ambassador in Sana'a to discuss a transfer of power in the country, Al Arabiya said. The meeting came after a senior member in the US administration spoke to Mansur late Saturday. The White House declined to give details about the talks.

The Saudi government, meanwhile, called on "all parties to exercise restraint and reason to spare the country the risks of sliding into more violence and fighting," the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Violence between Saleh's security forces and rebel tribesmen escalated last month after Saleh refused to sign a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal.

Four soldiers and one tribesman were killed during clashes in the southern city of Taiz, according to the Mareb Press news website.

Two protesters were also killed in the city, and 10 injured, when security opened fire on them.

On Saturday, nine soldiers were killed by militants in the southern province of Abyan when two military convoys were ambushed near the provincial capital Zinjibar.

Officials said that Zinjibar, which is 400 kilometres east of Sana'a, fell to a Yemeni-based affiliate of al-Qaeda last month.

The opposition has accused Saleh of handing over the town to militants in an attempt to scare Western countries into supporting his bid to remain in power.

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