WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday praised Yemenis for the "important step" of voting to end President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule and pledged support as it moves toward democracy.
"This is another important step forward in their democratic transition process and continues the important work of political and constitutional reform," Clinton said in a statement.
The "election sends a clear message that the people of Yemen are looking forward to a brighter democratic future. But there is still more work to be done," she said.
Clinton promised that the United States "will continue to support Yemen" as the nation -- a key front in the global campaign against Al-Qaeda -- addressed its "urgent economic, social and humanitarian challenges."
The vote was part of a power-transition deal brokered by Gulf Arab states and signed by Saleh in November. Only one candidate, Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, appeared on the ballot and will lead Yemen for a two-year interim period.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland acknowledged that a one-person vote was not a "true democracy" but called it a "beginning point" for a more competitive process.
"After they have a new constitution, our expectation is it will lead to full, free, fair, multi-party, multi-candidate elections, both for the legislature and for the executive," Nuland told reporters.
Saleh, the latest in a line of autocratic Arab leaders to lose power, has been in the United States since January 29 for treatment of burn wounds he suffered when his presidential palace was attacked in June.
Nuland said that Saleh was Tuesday in California and will enjoy diplomatic immunity until Hadi is inaugurated.
"Our understanding is that the Yemeni plan is to do that sometime later this week. So until then, Saleh is the sitting head of state and will be accorded immunities here," Nuland said.
She declined comment on Saleh's future movements. Human right activists have pressed for the United States to prosecute Saleh.
In a report this month based on witness accounts, Human Rights Watch said that Saleh's forces stormed and shelled hospitals, evicted patients at gunpoint and beat medics during an assault last year against protests in the city of Taez.
The New York-based rights group said that at least 120 people died in Taez, of whom 57 were taking part in peaceful demonstrations and 22 were children.