Saleh suffers string of major defections after protesters gunned down in Yemen

By Hakim Almasmari and William Branigin
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 1:56 AM

SANAA, YEMEN - President Ali Abdullah Saleh's grip on power looked increasingly tenuous Monday as top generals, tribal leaders and diplomats turned against him, apparently dividing the military and leaving the longtime strongman barricaded in his presidential palace.

The defections came after security forces gunned down more than 50 anti-government demonstrators Friday, drawing strong worldwide condemnation. Saleh, 65, who has ruled since 1978, dismissed his cabinet afterward and declared a 30-day state of emergency.

In defiance of growing pressure on him to resign, Saleh said in a speech Monday that he was "holding out" as president, and he claimed support from the majority of Yemen's 24 million people.

In a major blow to his power base, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a powerful commander and longtime ally, announced his "support for the peaceful revolution" and condemned the repression of protesters. Two other prominent commanders, Brig. Gens. Mohammed Ali Mohsen and Hameed al-Qusaibi, and a score of other senior officers also sided with the opposition.

But Yemen's defense minister said the armed forces still support Saleh, a former army officer, and would defend him from any "coup against democracy," Reuters news agency reported.

Saleh held a meeting of his National Defense Council and announced afterward that "the military is strong and will defend the nation from any force that wishes to take power through illegal means."

Among those announcing their defections Monday were Saleh's ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and Syria, Mohammed al-Ahwal and Abdel-Wahhab Tawaf, and Sadeq al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribal federation. The deputy speaker of parliament and more than 20 lawmakers resigned from Saleh's ruling party, and the governor and deputy governor of the port city of Aden also voiced support for the opposition movement.

In Washington, most officials at the Yemeni Embassy have resigned, leaving only a handful in their posts, including the ambassador and the defense attache. Several Yemeni ambassadors in Europe - including France, Germany, Belgium and Spain - called on Saleh to step down but stopped short of resigning themselves.

Like Mohsen, the defectors broke ranks with Saleh over the increasingly bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrations. Mohsen commands Yemen's northwestern military zone.

Condemning "unconstitutional and illegal practices by the authorities," Mohsen told al-Jazeera television: "Repressing peaceful demonstrators in public areas around the country has led to a cycle of crises which is getting more complicated each day and pushing the country toward civil war."

After the defection, tanks from the opposition and loyalist sides of the military deployed in the streets of the capital, as troops of the elite pro-Saleh Republican Guard protected the presidential palace. Tanks from units loyal to the defectors were stationed at entrances to the capital.

Mohsen, considered Yemen's most powerful military commander, said his forces would now protect the people. He deployed thousands of soldiers earlier Monday to safeguard protesters.

"Yemen today is suffering a dangerous crisis," he said. "The military are the protectors of the people, and I here announce that my forces will join the revolution and will protect the youth at Taghyir [Change] Square," he said.

Ali Jaradi, a political analyst, predicted that the vast majority of the military would soon join the opposition and that Saleh would be forced to relinquish power.

Adding to the blow, Sadeq al-Ahmar, considered Yemen's most powerful tribal leader, asked Saleh to step down while it is still possible. "The tribe of Hashid, which I head, has joined the revolution, and we ask for the safe transfer of power to the people," he said.

Earlier Monday, Saleh sent Foreign Minister Abubakr Qirbi to Saudi Arabia to discuss the rapid changes in the country. Sources in the Foreign Ministry said the visit was aimed at ensuring that Saleh can leave power honorably and that Saudi Arabia would not turn its back on him.

"Saleh knows that without the military, he is basically powerless, and is trying to convince the Saudis to continue supporting him," said the official.

According to a senior Yemeni military official, a number of Saleh's relatives left Yemen on Monday.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the use of live ammunition against peaceful demonstrators, which resulted in the death of 53 protesters Friday and may have marked a turning point in Saleh's rule.

"Killing protesters in cold blood was the end of [Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali, [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak, and now Saleh," said senior opposition leader Ahmed Bahri. "If Saleh steps down tonight, we will assure him a safe withdrawal."

Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company