HONOLULU — The Obama administration is considering whether to allow Yemen's outgoing president into the United States for medical treatment, as fresh violence and political tensions flare in the strategically important Middle Eastern nation.
A senior administration official said President Ali Abdullah Saleh's office requested that he be allowed to receive specialized treatment in the U.S. for injuries sustained in a June attack on his compound. The request was being considered, and would only be approved for medical reasons, the official said.
Until now, the White House had not commented on Saleh's assertion Saturday that he would be leaving Yemen and traveling to the U.S. Saleh insisted he was going in order to help calm tensions in his country, not for medical treatment.
The official, who requested anonymity because of a lack of authorization to speak publicly, did not say when the Obama administration would decide on Saleh's request. But the official said Saleh's office indicated that he would leave Yemen soon and spend time elsewhere abroad before he hoped to come to the U.S.
Demonstrators began protesting against Saleh and calling for his ouster in February. The Yemeni government responded with a bloody crackdown, leaving hundreds of protesters dead, and stoking fears of instability in a nation already grappling with burgeoning extremism.
Last month, Saleh agreed to a U.S.- and Saudi-backed deal to hand power over to his vice president and commit to stepping down completely in exchange for immunity. The deal further angered Saleh's opponents, who demanded he be tried for his attacks on protesters.
American officials are deeply concerned that the months of turmoil in Yemen have led to a security breakdown. The dangerous al-Qaida branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has taken advantage of the vacuum to expend its presence in southern Yemen.
Pressure has been mounting in recent weeks for Saleh to leave Yemen altogether. Opponents say he has continued to wield influence through his loyalists and relatives still in positions of power, hampering the transition ahead of presidential elections set for Feb. 21. Many feared he would find a way to continue his rule.
Activists said troops commanded by Saleh's relatives attacked protesters in the capital of Sanaa Saturday, killing at least nine people. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated the following day, protesting the deaths and demanding the resignation of Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for failing to bring the killers to justice.
The White House said President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, called Hadi Sunday and emphasized the need for Yemeni security forces to show "maximum restraint" when dealing with demonstrations. Hadi told Brennan that he had launched an investigation into the recent deaths and injuries and would do his utmost to prevent further bloodshed, the White House said.
The White House said Brennan and Hadi agreed on the importance of continuing with the agreed-upon path of political transition in Yemen in order to ensure that the February elections take place.
Obama was being briefed on developments in Yemen while in Hawaii for his Christmas vacation.
The U.S. has experience with letting unpopular foreign leaders into this country for medical treatment.
More than three decades ago, President Jimmy Carter allowed the exiled shah of Iran into the U.S. for medical treatment in October 1979, eight months after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a revolution that ousted the shah and created the Islamic Republic of Iran.
On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian students occupied the U.S. embassy in Iran. Fifty-two American hostages were held for 444 days in response to Carter's refusal to send the shah back to Iran for trial.