Video: Top Yemen commanders switch sides, join protesters

updated 3/21/2011 8:28:05 PM ET 2011-03-22T00:28:05

A top military commander and at least 18 other senior officers defected Monday to the opposition movement demanding the ouster of Yemen's embattled president, depriving the U.S.-allied ruler of most of his power base.

The looming collapse of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime throws into doubt the American campaign against a major al-Qaida wing that plotted attacks in the United States.

Monday's defections led to rival tanks being deployed in the streets of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, creating a potentially explosive situation and prompting Saleh's defense minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, to announce the military remained loyal to the longtime leader.

The armed forces will counter any plots against the government, Ahmed declared on state television, following a meeting of the National Defense Council, which is led by Saleh and includes Ahmed, the prime minister and the intelligence chief.

  1. Top stories: Turmoil in the Middle East
    1. UN: Gadhafi's food stocks to last just weeks
    2. S. African president: Gadhafi ready for truce
    3. Libyan rebels distribute rules on POW treatment
    4. Armed residents put up resistance to Syrian army
    5. Libyan rebels distribute rules on POW treatment

The defection of Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a longtime Saleh confidante and commander of the army's powerful 1st Armored Division, was seen by many as a turning point. It followed a major escalation in the regime's crackdown on demonstrators, when more than 40 people were killed in bloody clashes Friday.

Speaking in Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called Saleh's resignation "unavoidable" and pledged "support to all those that fight for democracy."

Tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers directed by al-Ahmar fanned out around the Sanaa square that has become the epicenter of the opposition movement, moving in for the first time to protect demonstrators.

Al-Ahmar also sent tanks to the state television building, the Central Bank and the Defense Ministry. Just miles away, 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.

  1. Get updates
    1. Follow us on Twitter

      Get the latest updates on this story and others from @breakingnews.

    2. Text NEWS to 67622 to receive mobile alerts

The deployment of al-Ahmar's troops in Sanaa was greeted by wild jubilation from protesters, many of whom posed with soldiers for photographs, greeted them with military style salutes or offered them roses.

Calling Al-Ahmar's defection "a turning point," Edmund J. Hull, U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said it showed "the military overall ... no longer ties its fate to that of the president."

"I'd say he's going sooner rather than later," Hull said.

In a sign of the Obama administration's growing alarm over the regime's crackdown on demonstrators, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called on the Yemeni leader to refrain from violence.

"We abhor the violence. We want a cessation of all violence against demonstrators," Toner said, calling on Saleh to "take the necessary steps to promote a meaningful dialogue that addresses the concerns of his people."

The 65-year-old president and his government have faced down many serious challenges in the past, often forging fragile alliances with restive tribes to extend power beyond the capital. Most recently, he has battled a seven-year armed rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and an al-Qaida offshoot that is of great concern to the U.S.

msnbc.com

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009, has moved beyond regional aims and attacked the West, including sending a suicide bomber who tried to down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with a bomb sewn into his underwear. The device failed to detonate properly.

Yemen is also home to U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have offered inspiration to those attacking the U.S., including Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people and wounding dozens in a 2009 shootout at Fort Hood, Texas.

Saleh has been a key, though not entirely reliable, U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida, frustrating his Washington backers with the delicate balancing act he has undertaken to maintain the goodwill of powerful tribes providing refuge to operatives from the terror network.

He has also earned a reputation for milking the "al-Qaida card," demanding millions of dollars in military aid that he has used to bolster the capabilities of units loyal to him rather than take on al-Qaida.

A Saleh successor would not be much different since Yemen's complex tribal system would stay intact after he is gone.

Al-Ahmar and two other senior army officers who defected Monday belong to Saleh's Hashid tribe and a tribal leader said it was rallying behind al-Ahmar as a possible replacement for Saleh, eager to keep the president's job for one of its own. The leader spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

A key Hashid leader, Sadeq al-Ahmar, said he and his supporters were also joining the protest movement. Speaking to Al-Jazeera television from Sanaa, he said the death of scores of protesters on Friday made him decide to back the opposition after weeks of trying to mediate between Saleh and the protesters.

"The demands of the protesters are the demands of the Yemeni people," he said. "I can no longer fool myself, it is not the custom of men or tribes to do so."

Monday's defections included at least 15 other top military figures. Among them were Sanaa's military commander, a former defense minister who served as a presidential adviser and a military police brigadier who is a member of the president's personal security detail.

Several top diplomats also said they were joining the opposition, including Yemen's ambassadors to Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Japan and the Arab League. Lawmakers, editors of state-owned newspapers, parliament's deputy speaker and the governor of the southern province of Aden also quit their jobs to join the opposition and urge Saleh to step down.

Early Tuesday, the Al-Jazeera satellite channel said gunmen attacked the station's offices in Sanaa and took equipment. There was no immediate independent confirmation.

Meanwhile, in a sign of the deepening divisions in the armed forces, gunfire broke out late Monday between the central security force protecting the presidential compound in the port city of Mukalla and the Yemeni army outside, security officials said. The compound, where Saleh stays when he is in town, is about a half-mile (kilometer) from where hundreds of protesters have been camping out to call for is ouster.

Story: Yemeni president's tribe demands he step down

Maj. Gen. al-Ahmar has been close to Saleh for most of the Yemeni president's 32 years in power. He has close associations with Islamist groups in Yemen that are likely to raise suspicions in the West about his willingness to effectively fight al-Qaida operatives active in the country.

He is a veteran of the 1994 civil war that saw Saleh's army suppress an attempt by southern Yemen to secede. Al-Ahmar also fought in recent years against Shiite rebels in northern Yemen.

Slideshow: Yemen in the spotlight (on this page)

His support for the opposition was welcomed by protesters, but the warm reception may not guarantee him a political career in a post-Saleh Yemen given his close links to the president.

"He comes from the very heart of Saleh's ruling dynasty," Yemeni analyst Mansour Haiel said of al-Ahmar, who has sometimes been seen as a rival to the president and his son, Ahmed.

"He could easily become the head of the next ruling dynasty."

In the southern port city of Aden, Muslim militants set fire to a jazz club and a bar, objecting to their serving alcohol, a security official said. The men were part of an Islamist group taking advantage of the city's security void, as police were busy dealing with demonstrations, the official said.

___

Hendawi reported from Cairo.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: July

loading photos...
  1. A man prepares the grave of Hassan al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa, July 19. Fighting between government forces and opposition supporters erupted in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Monday, killing six people, among them al-Hora, opposition sources said. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz, July 19. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A girl has ''will not leave'' written on her face during a rally to support Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa July 17. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Anti-government protestors shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Wednesday, July 13. (Mohammed Hamoud / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An anti-government protester writes slogans on a wall using his own blood during a rally to demand the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at Tagheer square in Sanaa on July 13. The words read "In my blood I protect Yemen." (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Girls light candles as they attend a rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz July 9. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A Yemeni anti-government protester displays bullets allegedly fired by supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration demanding Saleh’s ousting, in Sana'a, Yemen on July 8. (Yahya Arhab / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sit on stone pillars during a rally in support of President Saleh in Sana'a, Yemen, on July 8. Supporters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged rallies around his vacant palace Friday after their leader's first TV appearance since being injured in a blast last month and leaving for treatment in Saudi Arabia. (Mohammed Al-Sayaghi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A supporter of Saleh kisses his picture as his supporters celebrate in Sanaa on July 7 after he appeared on television for the first time since he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt. (Mohammed Huwais / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Saleh delivers a speech from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 7, making his first public appearance since he was wounded in an attack on his palace in Sanaa in June. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Anti-government protesters join their hands and shout slogans demanding an end to the 32-year regime of President Saleh, in Sanaa on July 6. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A police vehicle is set ablaze during clashes between armed followers of the opposition and police in the southern city of Taiz on July 6. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A relative of victims of recent clashes talks to a member of the United Nations human rights investigation team, left, in Sanaa on July 5. The U.N. team arrived in Yemen last week to assess the situation in the country after months of unrest. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women recite prayers during a rally to demand the ouster of President Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on July 1. Tens of thousands of Yemenis turned Friday prayers into rallies for and against Saleh, who is recovering from injuries sustained in an assassination attempt in June. (Khaled Abdullah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  2. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  3. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  4. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  5. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos
  6. YEMEN
    Karim Ben Khelifa
    Slideshow (20) Yemen in the spotlight

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments