Mystery Shrouds Yemeni President's Injuries

The situation in Yemen and the condition of the country's president remain murky. Aides to President Saleh say he suffered relatively light injuries in the bombing of his compound last week. Western diplomats described his condition as much more serious. Neil MacFarquhar, of The New York Times, talks to Renee Montagne about the latest developments in the uprising in Yemen.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The situation in Yemen remains murky this morning. Aides to the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has said he suffered relatively light injuries in the bombing of a mosque in his compound last week and that he will return to Yemen from Saudi Arabia where he's being treated. Western diplomats have described his condition as much more serious, saying the president suffered extensive burns and other injuries.

For the latest, we turn to New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar. He's in the Saudi capital Riyadh. And welcome to the program.

Mr. NEIL MACFARQUHAR (Correspondent, New York Times): Hello. How are you?

MONTAGNE: How serious are the president's injuries as you understand it?

Mr. MACFARQUHAR: Well, as you pointed out, it sort of depends on who you talk to. Some senior Yemeni officials, Arab and other diplomats, are saying that he suffered burns over 40 percent of his body, including his head, his arms and his back and chest. And there's also reports that a long piece of wood from the pulpit in the mosque pierced his lung.

But he has not appeared in public and if you talk to his aides they say he's going to be back in Yemen in a matter of days. And the other side says it takes three or four months to recuperate from burns like that and there is going to be no imminent return.

MONTAGNE: What then does this confusion mean for Yemen?

Mr. MACFARQUHAR: Well, officially the vice president, Abujabu Masarhadi is in charge. But there has been this plan on the table trying to set up a transitional government in answer to the street protests. So they're jockeying to try and get that in place with both outside powers like the United States and Saudi Arabia and the parties inside Yemen.

Basically, the first step of it was for President Saleh to step down. And the parties in Yemen are saying, well, since he's gone, let's just say that step one is done and move to step two, the transitional government.

But the hurdle in that, of course, is that President Saleh left his son Ahmed, who's in charge of the presidential guard, and his nephews, who are charged with important security services, behind. And so everybody has to get him, President Saleh, to agree before that can move forward. And that's been the hurdle for several months.

MONTAGNE: Step back just for a moment and just explain to us. The United States and Saudi Arabia both has strategic interests in Yemen. Are those interests aligned at this moment in time so that the outcome is one that both countries would want?

Mr. MACFARQUHAR: They're both interested in the stability of the country. There's an al-Qaida franchise that has set up there and there's concern that, you know, if the whole thing falls apart it could become another Somalia or place where al-Qaida could operate with impunity.

And where Saudi Arabia's concerned, you know, they have an 800 mile border with it. And it's always been a center of drug smuggling, weapon smuggling, people smuggling, and they would like the control over that border.

So the U.S. and Saudi Arabia basically would like to see the same degree of stability in the country, but how you go about achieving it they differ on slightly.

MONTAGNE: Well, also, if President Saleh does officially step down, as you say everyone wants - all these outside countries and the protesters in his country - what then?

Mr. MACFARQUHAR: That's a very good question, and it's one of the things that makes, you know, the United States and Saudi Arabia a little bit hesitant about pushing him.

I mean, they sort of - even before the street protests started in Yemen they were kind of fed up because they sort of feel like he's an adversary as much he is an ally.

But under the plan he'd step down after 30 days of signing the agreement. Then you have transitional government. And then you have parliamentary elections. And the parliamentary elections would rewrite the constitution and then they would set up what they hope would be a parliamentary system, because they don't want, you know, a president to have such concentrated powers again.

MONTAGNE: Neil, thanks very much.

Mr. MACFARQUHAR: Anytime.

MONTAGNE: That's New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar, who is in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh.

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