Yemen's leader battens down the hatches

By Karen DeYoung
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 6:16 PM

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh clung to power by a thread Tuesday, after the country's most powerful military commander defected to the opposition and scores of government officials, diplomats and other senior army figures resigned their posts.

In a meeting with senior government, military and tribal leaders Monday evening, Saleh offered to step down by the end of this year, news agencies reported. He previously had pledged not to run for reelection and to leave office when his term ends in September 2013. But the new concession failed to pacify anti-Saleh protesters, who pressed demands that he step down immediately.

"We reject Saleh's offer to step down, and we tell him that the next couple of hours will be decisive for his regime," opposition spokesman Mohammed Qahtan said.

Issuing a televised warning to a meeting of his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on Tuesday, Saleh rejected the opposition's demand and raised the specter of civil war.

Saleh took refuge inside the presidential palace while those outside - including in Washington - debated anxiously whether he would make a last stand with troops who remain loyal, be overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against him or "face the inevitable" and resign, a senior Obama administration official said.

Asked on Tuesday if the United States still supported Saleh, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates declined to give a direct answer.

"I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen," Gates told reporters traveling with him in Moscow. "We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen. We consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of al-Qaeda right now. So instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation."

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an offshoot of the Osama bin Laden group that U.S. officials said last year was the most urgent threat to the United States.

In his televised speech Tuesday, Saleh warned army commanders against attempting to overthrow him, saying this would lead to civil war. "Those who want to reach power through coups should know what they are seeking is impossible," he said. In that event, he declared, Yemen would not be stable because a bloody civil war would be inevitable.

Saleh vowed that he would not hand power to those who had joined the opposition.

Earlier Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of Yemen's northwestern military district who defected Monday, called on Saleh to step down to save the country from disaster.

In the northern part of the country, meanwhile, at least seven people were reported killed and 13 wounded in clashes between Shiite Houthi rebels and pro-government tribes.

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