U.S. mulling Yemen's Saleh travel request: official

HONOLULU Mon Dec 26, 2011 3:32pm EST

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh points during an interview with selected media, including Reuters, in Sanaa in this May 25, 2011 file photo. Saleh said on December 24, 2011 he would go to the United States in order to allow an interim government to prepare for an election to replace him, but did not specify when he would leave.   REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/Files

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh points during an interview with selected media, including Reuters, in Sanaa in this May 25, 2011 file photo. Saleh said on December 24, 2011 he would go to the United States in order to allow an interim government to prepare for an election to replace him, but did not specify when he would leave.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah/Files

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HONOLULU (Reuters) - The U.S. government would only allow Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to travel to the United States for "legitimate" medical treatment, and is now considering the request, a senior Obama administration official said on Monday.

The official said Saleh's office recently contacted the U.S. embassy in Sanaa to say the president plans to leave Yemen soon and wants to get specialized care in the United States related to injuries he sustained in a June assassination attempt that forced him into hospital in Saudi Arabia.

"The request for approval for President Saleh to travel to the United States is currently under consideration. The only reason that travel to the United States by President Saleh would be approved would be for legitimate medical treatment," the official said.

On Saturday, just hours after his forces killed nine people who had demanded he be tried for the killings of demonstrators over the past year, Saleh said he would leave for the United States and give way to a successor. He did not say when he would depart.

The Yemeni leader said he would undergo some medical tests but characterized his intended trip as one of temporary exile.

"I will go to the United States. 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.

"I'll be there for several days, but I'll return because I won't leave my people and comrades who have been steadfast for 11 months," Saleh said.

Increasing bloodshed and political uncertainty in Yemen is a major concern to its neighbor Saudi Arabia and Saleh's former supporters in Washington, who worry the country's al Qaeda wing could gain control of key oil shipping routes in the chaos.

President Barack Obama's top counter-terrorism official John Brennan called Yemen's acting leader on Sunday to emphasize the need for Yemeni forces "to show maximum restraint" when dealing with demonstrations, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement issued in Hawaii where Obama is vacationing.

In his phone conversation with Yemeni Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Brennan also called for all sides in Yemen's political transition to avoid "provocative acts that could spur further violence."

Hadi told Brennan he has launched an investigation into the deaths and injuries that occurred and said he would do his utmost to prevent further bloodshed, Earnest said, adding both officials agreed it was important to stick to the transition path leading to the February 21, 2012, presidential election.

"Mr. Brennan told Vice President Hadi that the United States remains a strong and fervent supporter of the Yemeni people in their quest to realize their richly deserved aspirations for security, political stability, representative government, and economic prosperity," Earnest said.

Hadi on Sunday urged Saleh's foes and loyalists to commit to a truce.

(Reporting by Laura MacInnis; editing by Anthony Boadle)

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