SANA, Yemen — Embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew to Saudi Arabia for medical care after he was wounded in a rocket attack on his palace, according to senior government officials.
The New York Times said it was told by Saudi officials Saturday that Saleh's condition had worsened overnight, and that he had agreed to treatment in Riyadh. The state-run Saudi Press Agency confirmed that Saleh arrived in Saudi Arabia late Saturday.
Saleh's abrupt departure threatened to deepen the crisis in his impoverished nation shaken by months of protests against his 33-year rule.
His departure followed intense pressure from his powerful gulf neighbors and longtime ally Washington to step down. He had agreed to transfer power several times, only to step back at the last moment. Saleh might never return, given the opposition by large segments of the population and a powerful tribal alliance that took up arms after peaceful protests failed to persuade him to step down.
The Associated Press said it was told by a government official that Saleh flew out of the country with most of his family, and that many officials only learned about Saleh's plans after the president had left.
Most analysts believe it is unlikely Saleh will return, potentially ending the reign of a dictator who had become an important U.S. ally against al-Qaida, the Washington Post reported.
"Once he steps out of Yemen there's a major question as to whether he ever returns," said Juan Zarate, who served as counterterrorism adviser to former President George W. Bush. "If in fact he leaves I'm very pessimistic as to what follows. I think it turns very messy very quickly, creating all sorts of breathing space for al-Qaida and problems for the United States."
Washington also has expressed fears that the chaos in Yemen will undermine the U.S.-backed campaign against al-Qaida's branch in the country. Saleh has been a crucial U.S. ally in the antiterror fight, but Washington is trying to negotiate a stable exit for him.
Yemen's constitution calls for the vice president to take over in the absence of the president. Saleh also was widely believed to be grooming his son, Ahmed, as a successor. Ahmed was believed to have stayed behind in an apparent bid to hold on to power.
The extent of Saleh's injuries has been a matter of intense speculation ever since a rocket struck the mosque in his presidential compound during Friday prayers. Eleven guards died, and five officials standing nearby were seriously wounded and taken to Saudi Arabia.
Information from the Associated Press, New York Times and Washington Post was used in this report.