The Obama administration is considering whether to allow Yemen's departing president into the United States for medical treatment, as violence and political tensions flare in the strategically important Middle Eastern nation.
A senior Obama administration official said President Ali Abdullah Saleh's office requested that he be allowed to receive specialized treatment in the United States for burns and shrapnel wounds he suffered when his compound was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades in June. The request is 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 United States. Saleh insisted he was going in order to help calm tensions in his country, not for medical treatment.
The official, who requested anonymity, 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 United States.
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 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 in exchange for immunity. The deal angered Saleh's opponents, who demanded that he be tried for his attacks on protesters.
U.S. officials are concerned that the months of turmoil in Yemen have led to a security breakdown.
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 fear that he will find a way to continue his rule.
Activists said troops commanded by Saleh's relatives attacked protesters in the capital of Sanaa on Saturday, killing at least nine people. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated the next 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 Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, called Hadi on 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 bloodshed and would do his utmost to prevent further violence, 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.