Yemeni Leader Severely Burnt, Raising Doubts About His Rule

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen suffered injuries far more extensive than previously known in the attack on his presidential palace last week, with burns over 40 percent of his body, Yemeni officials and Western diplomats said Tuesday.

There have also been reports that a wooden shard sliced into his body and punctured a lung, said Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, the head of the Arabiya television network.

It was initially reported that Mr. Saleh, who was flown to Saudi Arabia on Saturday for treatment at the Armed Forces Hospital in Riyadh, had suffered burns on his face, neck and arms in a blast at the palace mosque during Friday Prayer.

But his back was burned as well, according to the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, and the burns were severe enough to require strong sedation for the pain and months of convalescence.

“His face was quite charred,” said a Western official, speaking anonymously according to governmental rules. “The burns are serious; he is not as well as his aides are portraying it.”

An aide reached at the hospital refused to confirm or deny the extent of the president’s injuries.

The source of the explosion, which killed several guards and the imam of the mosque and injured a dozen government officials and Saleh allies, has also been mysterious. It was initially believed to have come from a mortar or rocket attack from outside the compound.

But as the investigation continued, opinion has shifted to the possibility of at least one or more explosive devices having been planted, including in the minbar, or pulpit, a Western official said. Many of those injured were struck by shards of wood, including the president.

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The explosive material also apparently contained some kind of agent that spurred flames, a Western diplomat said. Mr. Saleh was said to be bowing at the time of the explosion. “He was very close, and that is why he was burned,” said the Western official.

Other top officials were being treated in at the Saudi hospital, including the prime minister, the speaker of Parliament, the head of the Shura council, and two deputy prime ministers, including one, Sadiq Ameen Abu Ras, who lost a leg, Yemeni officials said. Nouman Duweid, the governor of Sana, is in a coma, said Tareq Shami, the spokesman for the General People’s Congress. At least a half dozen other members of Parliament, advisers and soldiers are also being treated.

Interpretations of Mr. Saleh’s medical state have varied according to the competing demands of the camps that would like different outcomes in Yemen.

Those who would like to see him return to power, including the vice president and aides with him in the hospital in Riyadh, portray Mr. Saleh as in fine mettle and expected to return to Sana, the capital, any day. Those who would like to see him step down, whether in Yemen or outside the country, portray his condition as more dire.

In his absence, opposition groups are maneuvering in the capital to set up a transitional government, and fighting flared in the city of Taiz and in Yemen’s restive southern coastal region.

Government soldiers fired artillery in clashes with armed tribesmen calling themselves the “hawks of freedom” who seized control of an area in center of Taiz, which had been the site of the country’s largest antigovernment protests until a brutal crackdown last month. A doctor in the city, Abdulkafi Shamsan, said at least 15 people were killed in overnight fighting, not including government soldiers. It was unclear how many soldiers were killed.

In the coastal city of Zinjibar, the Defense Ministry said, the military had killed at least 30 militants believed to have ties to Al Qaeda during intense fighting on Tuesday, news agencies reported. Residents and government troops are attempting to retake the city from the militants, who took control nearly two weeks ago.

Violence also erupted along Yemen’s northern border with Saudi Arabia early Tuesday as an unidentified gunman trying to drive into Yemen from the Saudi province of Najran killed two Saudi border police officers and wounded a third before being gunned down himself, the Saudi Interior Ministry said.

The gunman was in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and appeared to have a large supply of ammunition. The clash occurred at the Wadia border crossing, a conduit for the smuggling of drugs, weapons and people from the impoverished southern nation on the Arabian Peninsula into its richer northern neighbor.

Stability along the border is one reason Saudi Arabia has taken a keen interest in the increasing instability in Yemen.