A senior Yemeni official said Tuesday that the Obama administration has assured the government that President Ali Abdullah Saleh will be allowed to enter the United States to receive medical treatment, a decision that could prove politically dicey if it actually occurs.
The State Department strongly denied that a decision had been reached, saying that it is still reviewing Saleh’s visa application. The department stressed that it would not allow Saleh entrance for any other reason than legitimate medical concerns.
“Contrary to some reports that we’ve seen, that permission has not been granted yet,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
But a top adviser to Saleh expressed surprise Tuesday at the denials, saying the Yemeni government was told by the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa that the visa had been approved.
“We were informed yesterday from the American Embassy about the arrival of the visa,” said Sultan al-Barakani, a senior ruling party official. “They called us again today and confirmed the visa. And they requested to know the date of the travel and the route.”
When asked whether the visa was contingent on Saleh receiving medical treatment, Barakani said it was “unconditional.”
The White House deliberations reflect a sensitive political calculus. The administration is trying to help orchestrate a smooth transition in Yemen, where Saleh has ruled for 33 years. But the U.S. government does not want to appear to be supporting a repressive strongman — a politician many Yemenis want to face trial for the deaths of hundreds of political dissidents over the years.
Demonstrators have called since January for his removal, and Saleh has formally relinquished power to his vice president in anticipation of a presidential election in February.
But Saleh remains in the presidential palace and is widely believed to still be in charge. Government forces controlled by his son shot and killed nine demonstrators who took part in a protest march last weekend.
Saleh, who suffered serious wounds in a June attack on the palace, told reporters Saturday that he would leave the country for the United States. He suggested he would undergo medical tests but described his plans more in terms of temporary exile, the Reuters news agency reported.
“I will go to the United States,” Saleh said. “Not for treatment, because I’m fine, but to get away from attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections.” He said he would “be there for several days, but I’ll return because I won’t leave my people and comrades.”
In Honolulu, where President Obama is vacationing, a White House spokesman denied a New York Times report that the Obama administration had granted Saleh’s request and that he could be admitted to a hospital in New York this week. The newspaper subsequently retracted the report and said the decision had been made in principle, subject to conditions including Saleh submitting an itinerary.
“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,” deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
Asked about Saleh’s request to travel to the United States, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Sanaa said Tuesday, “It’s something under consideration.”
Yemen’s deputy information minister, Abdu al-Janadi, also said there were no dates, itinerary or a visa issued for a trip.
But he said Yemeni officials were under the impression that the United States had approved Saleh’s visit for medical treatment. Janadi said heading to the United States or Europe for medical treatment was one of Saleh’s conditions for stepping down as part of an agreement with the U.N. Security Council.
“The president has decided to go to the United States for a medical checkup and to stay away from Yemen so that the coalition government could go ahead and do whatever it has to do, and so that no one places the blame on the president if things don’t go correctly regarding the elections,” Janadi said.
But he also said that Saleh may postpone his trip because of the political situation. The political opposition — the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP — has been trying to oust some of Saleh’s loyalists from key positions.
“The president is reconsidering his decision about traveling due to JMP showing bad intentions,” Janadi said. “The president sees that it’s important to fix what’s going on prior to making any decisions in terms of traveling.”
Raghavan reported from Nairobi, Nakamura from Honolulu. Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington and special correspondent Ali Almujahed in Sanaa contributed to this report.