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White House official meets Yemen’s Saleh

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During a face-to-face meeting in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, a top Obama administration official told Yemen’s president to step aside and allow the political transition he had once approved but never ratified to move forward, according to a statement by the White House.

John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security, met Ali Abdullah Saleh at a hospital in Riyadh where he is recovering from wounds suffered in an attack on the presidential compound in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, early last month.

Saleh has clung to power in the face of large-scale demonstrations in Yemen calling for his ouster and despite agreeing to sign a plan brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional grouping of countries, that would grant him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his resignation.

“During the meeting, Mr. Brennan called upon [President Saleh] to fulfill expeditiously his pledge to sign the GCC-brokered agreement for peaceful and constitutional political transition in Yemen,” the White House said in the statement.

Saleh was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment of serious burns and shrapnel wounds after the attack on his palace, which came as forces loyal to the president and rival tribesmen were engaged in fierce street fighting in Sanaa.

Since his departure, Saleh and his supporters have continued to insist that he plans to return to Yemen. And Sunday, the Yemeni president showed little sign that he would agree to cede power.

In a statement carried on the Web site of the Yemeni Defense Ministry, Saleh, who has been in office since 1978, called for “a national dialogue that would include all political forces which would . . . preserve Yemen’s unity, security and stability.”

According to news reports from the region, Saleh appeared significantly more robust during the meeting with Brennan than he did during a broadcast Thursday, in which he seemed quite weak.

Al-Arabiya, the pan-Arab broadcaster, reported Sunday that Saleh plans to return to Yemen next Sunday, the 33rd anniversary of his being elected president.

The United States and its allies in the region view Saleh as an obstacle to restoring some stability in Yemen, and the White House statement suggested that U.S. assistance may be contingent on implementation of the GCC accord, which would begin the transfer of power and put the country on course for elections and new leadership.

Absent Saleh’s resignation, the United States and other countries fear that Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, will slide deeper into political chaos. And any instability will almost certainly be exploited by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, a group that has repeatedly attempted to attack the United States.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate is known, attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger plane in December 2009 and put parcel bombs on cargo planes destined for the United States last year.

“Mr. Brennan said that the United States is working closely with Yemen’s friends and supporters in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Europe, and elsewhere to ensure that much needed assistance will flow to Yemen as soon as the GCC proposal is signed and implemented,” the statement said.

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