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Middle East
Top army commanders defect in Yemen
Troops and tanks deployed in Sanaa to protect anti-government protesters as senior military officials back uprising.
Last Modified: 21 Mar 2011 14:01

Several top Yemeni army commanders have declared their support for anti-government protesters seeking the resignation of the country's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Major General Ali Mohsen Saleh, the head of the north western military zone and the head of the first armoured division, said on Monday that he had deployed army units to protect the protesters.

President Saleh said on Monday that the majority of the people were behind him, even as his autocratic regime lost the support of the top army generals and tribal leaders.

"We're still here... the great majority of the Yemeni people are with security, stability and constitutional law," he was quoted as saying by the state-run news agency.

"Those who are calling for chaos, violence, hate and sabotage are only a tiny minority."

Shortly after Saleh spoke Yemen's defence minister said on national TV that the army supports the president and that it will defend him against any "coup against democracy".

"The armed forces will stay faithful to the oath they gave before God, the nation and political leadership under the brother president Ali Abdullah Saleh...

"We will not allow under any circumstances an attempt at a coup against democracy and constitutional legitimacy, or violation of the security of the nation and citizens," Mohammad Nasser Ali said.

Defections

However, several other commanders, among them Brigadier Hameed Al Koshebi, head of brigade 310 in Omran area, Brigadier Mohammed Ali Mohsen, head of the eastern division, Brigadier Nasser Eljahori, head of brigade 121, and General Ali Abdullaha Aliewa, adviser of the Yemeni supreme leader of the army, rallied behind Major General Saleh and defected.

Addressing a news conference, Major General Saleh said: "Yemen today, is suffering from a comprehensive and dangerous crisis and it is widespread.

"Lack of dialogue and oppression of peaceful protesters in the public sphere, resulted in crisis which has increased each day.

"And it is because of what I feel about the emotions of officers and leaders in the armed forces, who are an integral part of the people, and protectors of the people, I declare, on their behalf, our peaceful support of the youth revolution and their demands and that we will fulfil our duties."

The announcement came days after scores died when armed men fired at an anti-government protest in the capital Sanaa.

Several ministers resigned from the government after Friday's violence. Abdullah Alsaidi, Yemen's ambassador to the United Nations, also quit in protest over the killings.

Huda al-Baan, Yemen's human rights minister, said she had resigned from the government and the ruling party in protest over the sniper attack on demonstrators.

She said in a statement late on Saturday that her resignation was to protest the "massacre" of demonstrators.

Mohammed al Ahwal, Yemen's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, also sided with the protesters on Monday demanding the ouster of president Saleh.

"I announce my support for the youth revolution, and for change in Yemen," Ahwal told AFP news agency in a phone interview. It was not immediately clear whether he was leaving his post or resigning.

Earlier on Monday, the Yemeni ambassadors to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt and China resigned from their posts. Some of the also resigned from Saleh's ruling party.

The chief of the state news agency has also stepped down. Hakim Al Masmari, editor-in-chief of Yemen Post, told Al Jazeera that Monday's army defections spell the end for president Saleh. 

"It is officially over, now that 60 per cent of the army is allied with the protesters.

"For Ali Mohsen Saleh to annnouce this, it is a clear sign to president Saleh that the game is over and that he must step down now.

"It means the fall of the Yemeni army, by nightfall, we expect 90 per cent of the army to join Mohsen Saleh.

"According to our sources, the president knew that this will happen and he expects Major General Saleh to let him leave without further degradation and humiliation," he said.

Masmari, however, said Major General Saleh was not an acceptable figure.

"Ali Mohsen Saleh will not be accepted by the youth, it is not the start of a military government in Yemen, so a national emergency government will be a civil government," he said.

"He is also very corrupt, he is not respected here in Yemen, however, it will open the doors for the fall of the current regime." 

Popular uprising

On Sunday, president Saleh fired his entire cabinet, which came after a month-long popular uprising calling for political reform and his resignation.

The president asked the cabinet to serve as caretaker government until he forms a new one.

Adding even more pressure on Saleh, the country's most powerful tribal confederation on Sunday called on him to step down.

Protesters are calling on president Saleh, in power since 1978, to step down [AFP]

Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the leader of Hashed, which includes Saleh's tribe, issued a statement asking the president to respond to the people's demands and leave peacefully. It was co-signed by several religious leaders.

Jamila Ali Raja, a former Yemeni foreign ministry spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that "They are preparing a scene for military protection, at the same time a transitional government will be put in place, so a similar scenario to Egypt."

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Gabool al Mutawakil, a youth activist, said: "We are now in the middle of two militaries - one that has joined the protesters and one that is under the authority of president Saleh.

"There is fear of civil war, but we are insisting on having a peaceful revolution."

Saleh has been in power since 1978, and is facing one of the toughest challenges during his tenure.

The violence used against demonstrators has prompted condemnation from the UN and the US, which backs Yemen's government with hundreds of millions in military aid to battle an al-Qaeda offshoot.

Muslim clerics have called on Yemeni soldiers to disobey orders to shoot at demonstrators, and blamed Saleh for the slaughter on Friday.

Witnesses said pro-government "thugs" rained bullets from rooftops near a square close to Sanaa University, which for weeks has been the centre of demonstrations calling for the end of Saleh's rule.

"The defections are on all sides and this is just the beginning," Abdul Ghani Al Iryani, a political analyst in the capital, Sanaa, told Al Jazeera.

"I think if we don't come to some kind of national reconciliation, the defections will continue until the regime falls.

"The president is talking to various political groups but he's not talking to the main group, which is the youth in the square.

"If he wants to get out of this, he will have to address their concerns, he will have to include them in any national dialogue and he will have to accept the fact that much of his power needs to be transferred to a government of national unity."

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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