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Envoy: Yemen leader will step aside

The United Nations envoy to Yemen says he expects President Abdullah Ali Saleh to leave the country for medical treatment for injuries from an assassination attempt and to honour a deal transferring power to his vice president.

Jamal Benomar said he had no doubts that a presidential election would take place as scheduled on February 21 - without Mr Saleh as a candidate.

Mr Saleh, who has ruled the Arab world's poorest country for 33 years, signed the deal last month after long delays. The agreement transferred virtually all presidential powers to vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi but left Mr Saleh with the title of president, which he will lose after the election. When that happens, he will become the fourth Arab leader forced out by the protests sweeping the region. The others were in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Some critics and diplomats believe that Mr Saleh will do everything possible to avoid sticking to the timetable to step aside, but his medical condition appears likely to force his departure.

Mr Benomar said Mr Saleh, who was initially treated in Saudi Arabia, "still requires serious medical treatment, and medical treatment that he will require outside of Yemen".

"My understanding is that efforts are being made, and for arrangements to be concluded, for him to get this treatment," he told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council behind closed doors.

Mr Benomar said the situation in Yemen remained "highly fragile" and the national unity government led by Mr Hadi, which was sworn in on December 10, faced huge challenges in re-establishing control over significant parts of the country including some areas being run by al Qaida.

But he praised the new government for taking immediate action to start restoring peace and stability in the country by ordering the removal of checkpoints and roadblocks, and the withdrawal of military forces to barracks and the return of militias to villages by Saturday.

"This is a landmark decision and I am happy to report that progress has been witnessed in (the capital) Sanaa in these past four days with the removal of barricades and checkpoints and the withdrawal of armed groups from public and private facilities they had been occupying," Mr Benomar said.

The United Nations estimates that hundreds of unarmed protesters have been killed and thousands wounded since anti-Saleh protests began 10 months ago.

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