Aides to Ali Abdullah Saleh said Monday that the ousted Yemeni president plans to go into exile in Ethiopia, as pressures mounted on him to depart the country for fear of sparking new cycles of violence.
The news that the longtime Yemeni leader might leave to Ethiopia marks the latest twist in the meandering story of Saleh's fall from grace.
As rumors have circulated of Saleh seeking refuge in a myriad of countries including Oman, and the United Arab Emirates where some of his family is already setting up residence, the ousted president has lingered on in Yemen, much to the dismay of the man who replaced him, the international officials who facilitated the handover of power, and people on the street who want his head.
The aides said that the former president will leave Yemen within two days along with some of his family members where he will reside in a villa in the suburb of Addis Ababa.
A diplomat in Sanaa confirmed that arrangements had been made for Saleh's departure for Ethiopia. Aides said that visas have been issued and Saleh's belongings already shipped to Ethiopia. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Inside the presidential palace there were signs that Saleh's time in power was at an end.
Witnesses who went inside Monday said a whole hall that used to display precious souvenirs, antiques, golden watches, guns, hunting rifles and other paraphernalia collected under Saleh's regime, was bare on Monday.
A senior army officer and a presidency employee told AP that the commander of the Presidential Guards, who is also Saleh's nephew, has ordered his guards to move all the antiques to an undisclosed location. Even alcohol which Saleh used to serve to his western visitors had been carted away, said another employee.
Officials said that Saleh came under heavy pressures from Western and Arab countries to leave the country, upon repeated requests by the newly elected president and transitional government to prevent Saleh from staying in Yemen.
Newly inaugurated President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was sworn in as president on Saturday following an election aimed at ending more than a year of political turmoil. Hadi was the only candidate. A power-transfer deal backed by the Gulf and U.S. gave Saleh immunity from prosecution in exchange for stepping down.
Saleh's permanent departure from Yemen was not spelled out in the agreement but it was generally understood by all parties that he would find a new home. The fear was that if he stayed in Yemen permanently he would incite riots of those calling for his prosecution and, his opponents feared he would be able to exert control through his powerful network of well-placed family members and allies.
Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa told President Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, during a meeting in Sanaa the night before the election that "...Saleh's return to the country means another war." That was according to a senior Yemeni official with knowledge of the meeting.
The Yemen official said Basindwa has pleaded with the U.S. to get Saleh to leave. The U.S. sees Yemeni stability as vital to battling al-Qaida on the Saudi Arabian peninsula.
Other Yemeni officials said that members of the U.N. Security Council threatened to freeze Saleh and his family's assets if he stayed in Yemen. They didn't name the member states but one said, "after days of maneuvering, he accepted."
The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa declined to comment and the Ethiopian Embassy could not immediately be reached for comment.
Saleh's erratic behavior has been a major source of uncertainty throughout Yemen's year of turmoil.
He slipped out of signing the accord for the power handover three times before finally agreeing to it.
Saleh left Yemen in June after being injured in an explosion. He received medical treatment in neighboring Saudi Arabia for three months, and the U.S. had hoped he would remain in the Gulf.
But Saleh returned home and violence worsened anew.
Three weeks ago Saleh went to the U.S. for more medical treatment, and again it was hoped that he would remain abroad.
But he returned Saturday for Hadi's inauguration.
Saleh's aides said he was waiting for an answer from the Gulf sultanate of Oman, which borders Yemen to the east, on whether he can live there but the sultanate has not responded.
In a farewell ceremony on Monday, Saleh and Hadi appeared for the first time together. They pledged to lay the foundation for a peaceful power transition.
"Two years from now, I will stand in the same place to transfer power to (another) newly elected president," Hadi told the gathering. Saleh then passed a Yemeni flag to his successor.
According to the deal that saw Saleh leave office, a new president and a new parliament are to be elected within two years and a new constitution should be in place.
But the ceremony did not sit well with many Yemenis. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, calling for Saleh's prosecution.
"This is a provocation to the Yemeni people," said Abdu al-Udaimi, a spokesman for the anti-Saleh protest movement. "As if Saleh claims he is stepping down voluntarily."