Rival tanks deploy in streets of Yemen's capital after powerful general defects to opposition
Monday, March 21, 2011; 1:14 PM
SANAA, Yemen - Rival tanks deployed in the streets of Yemen's capital Monday after three senior army commanders defected to a movement calling for the ouster of the U.S.-backed president, radically depleting his support among the country's most powerful institutions.
Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the army's powerful 1st Armored Division, announced his defection in a message delivered by a close aide to protest leaders at the Sanaa square that has become the epicenter of their movement.
Some of the division's tanks and armored vehicles then deployed in the square, which protesters have occupied for more than a month to call for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 32 years in power. An increasingly violent crackdown on the demonstrations escalated dramatically on Friday when Saleh's forces opened fire from rooftops, killing more 40 in an assault that caused much of his remaining power base to splinter.
Maj. Gen. al-Ahmar also sent tanks to the state television building, the Central Bank and the Defense Ministry.
Saleh, who has cooperated closely with a U.S.-backed offensive against his nation's branch of al-Qaida, looked to be far closer to what analysts increasingly have called inevitable: a choice between stepping down or waging a dramatically more violent campaign against his opponents.
Saleh appeared to be retaining the loyalty of at least some of Yemen's military.
Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed said on television that the armed forces remained loyal to the president and would counter any plots against "constitutional legitimacy" and "democracy."
Ahmed spoke after a meeting of the National Defense Council, which is led by Saleh and includes the prime minister, the defense and information ministers as well as the intelligence chief.
At least a dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers belonging to the Republican Guards, an elite force led by Saleh's son and one-time heir apparent, Ahmed, were deployed outside the presidential palace on Sanaa's southern outskirts, according to witnesses.
A senior opposition leader said contacts were underway with the president over a peaceful way out of the ongoing crisis. One option under discussion, he said, was for Saleh to step down and a military council takes over from him to run the country till presidential and legislative elections are held.
The leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the contacts, declined to say how much progress the talks have made, but gave 48 hours as the likely timeframe for a breakthrough.
Saleh also sent a message via his foreign minister to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Yemen's powerful neighbor and the on-and-off backer of the Yemeni leader. The contents of the message were not known.