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Middle East

Protesters celebrate departure of leader

Protesters danced, sang and slaughtered cows in the central square of Yemen's capital today to celebrate the departure of the country's authoritarian leader for medical treatment after he was wounded in a rocket attack on his compound.

There was no official announcement on who was acting as head of state. But under Yemen's constitution, the vice president takes over for up to 60 days when the head of state is absent. Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi met today with US Ambassador Gerald Michael Feierstein, the strongest indication yet that he is in charge.

Yemen's conflict began as a peaceful uprising that the government at times used brutal force to suppress. It transformed in recent weeks to a more violent struggle for power when formal tribal allies of President Ali Abdullah Saleh turned against him and transformed the streets of the capital Sanaa into a war zone.

Other forces rose against Saleh at the same time. There were high-level defections within his military, and Islamist fighters took over at least one town in the south in the past two weeks. Saleh blamed the tribal rivals for the attack on his compound on Friday that killed 11 bodyguards and wounded at least five senior government officials in addition to the president.

The protesters celebrated at Sanaa's Change Square, the epicentre of a nationwide protest movement since mid-February calling for Saleh to step down immediately after nearly 33 years. Some uniformed soldiers joined those dancing and singing patriotic songs.

Activist and rights lawyer Khaled al-Ansi said families and children were arriving in the square in party clothes.

"People have trickled in since dawn to the square. Some have not slept yet. It is like a holiday," he said.

In Taiz, Yemen's second largest city, dozens of gunmen attacked the presidential palace, killing four soldiers in an attempt to storm the compound, according to military officials and witnesses. They said one of the attackers was also killed in the violence.

The attackers belong to a group set up recently to avenge the killing of anti-regime protesters at the hands of Saleh's security forces.

Saleh has been under intense pressure to step down from his powerful Gulf neighbours, who control a large share of the world's oil resources, and from long-time ally Washington. They all fear Yemen could be headed toward a failed state that will become a fertile ground for al Qaida's most active franchise to operate and launch attacks abroad.

Saleh's injuries provided him with what could turn out to be a face-saving solution to exit power.

A Yemeni official said Saleh left with his two wives and some of his children. The official said he and others learned about Saleh's plans only after the president left. A Saudi medical official said his condition was "not good".