HONOLULU - The White House on Monday said that reports that it had already decided to admit Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the United States for medical treatment were "not true."
White House deputy spokesman Josh Earnest said that US officials were still considering Saleh's request, but that no decision had been made, after the New York Times quoted an official as saying Saleh would be granted entry.
As fresh violence raged in Yemen at the weekend, Saleh caused a stir by saying he wanted to visit the United States, though was not seeking treatment for wounds sustained in an attack on his palace in June.
But a senior US official said earlier that Saleh's office had contacted the US embassy in Sanaa and said the president did indeed want to go to the United States to seek "specialized medical treatment."
Then, the Times quoted an unnamed administration official as saying that Washington would allow Saleh to travel to New York City, after a period of intense internal debate over his request.
But US officials, staying in Hawaii where President Barack Obama is taking his Christmas and New Year holiday, rushed to cast doubt on the Times report.
"US officials are continuing to consider President Saleh's request to enter the country for the sole purpose of seeking medical treatment, but initial reports that permission has already been granted are not true," Earnest said.
It was unclear when the administration would sign off on a final decision on Saleh's request, which put US officials in a tight political spot.
Washington wants to ensure that the political transition in Yemen up to elections in February, after which Saleh has said he will stand down, goes smoothly. Some observers believe that is more likely with the president gone.
But if it does admit Saleh, the Obama administration would likely face intense criticism if it is seen as harboring a leader blamed for the deaths of hundreds of people in protests against his rule.
That scenario is the reason officials are repeatedly stressing that Saleh would be admitted only for "legitimate" medical treatment.