Sana, Yemen – In a significant erosion of military support for Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, five generals on Monday threw their support behind protesters calling for his immediate ouster as rival soldiers took up positions in different sections of the capital.
The generals were Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh, a powerful figure who commands forces in the country’s northwest, three other brigadier generals and a general. The five said they had decided to support the protesters after watching the bloody clashes on Friday.
“I declare on their behalf our peaceful support for the youth revolution and that we are going to fulfill our complete duty in keeping the security and stability in the capital,” General Saleh said in an interview on Al Jazeera on Monday. He said that violence against protesters was “pushing the country to the edge of civil war.”
By Monday afternoon, tanks and soldiers loyal to the president were positioned around the presidential palace, while miles away, those directed by General Saleh pledged their support for protesters and, for the first time, stood around the demonstration to protect it.
Some of the soldiers at the demonstration draped black, white and red ribbons over their chest, the colors of Yemen’s flag. “We are with the people,” said a group of soldiers guarding the main entrance of the protest.
The move came as one of the country’s most important tribal leaders, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, said on Monday that he would join the country’s street protest movement, posing a significant new challenge to the Yemeni leader. Mr. Saleh, an American ally who has faced weeks of sustained protests against his rule, fired his cabinet late Sunday night, following the deaths of at least 45 people killed by government-linked forces on Friday.
Mr. Ahmar is the head of the Hashid tribal confederation, to which the president belongs, and his support for antigovernment demonstrations is likely to have a destabilizing effect on the president.
“Yemen is not the property of Ali Saleh or the Hashids,” Mr. Ahmar told a crowd of protesters in the capital, Sana, as he announced his support for their movement.
By swinging the weight of the Hashid tribes behind the protests, Mr. Ahmar joined his brother, Sheik Hussein al-Ahmar, who resigned from the ruling party last month to join the demonstrators. Tribes from across Yemen have historically been embroiled in conflicts, but so far few squabbles have taken place among those who have joined the main protest in Sana, their leaders and other protesters said.
The shift in support by the tribal leader and senior military commanders came amid a stream of resignations by Yemeni officials on Monday, including the mayor of the restive southern city of Aden, a provincial governor and at least one of the country’s ambassadors, according to a diplomat at the Yemeni Embassy in Washington who asked not to be identified.
Yemen’s ambassadors to Syria and Saudi Arabia also resigned on Monday, according to Al Jazeera, and the ambassador to Japan was reported to have quit as well.
“This is a replicate of the changes that have happened in Egypt,” said a high-ranking Yemeni diplomat in Europe who spoke on condition of anonymity. But, he added, “It is too early to see where the shift would lead to.”
The atmosphere at the demonstration, which had grown to its largest in recent days, was optimistic with some men breaking into song. “The army knows that its correct place is to protect the people,” said Fawaz al-Muthlafy, an engineer from the central city of Taiz who has spent weeks at the sit-in protest. “The citizens are now receiving support from across the entire nation, and all our voices have been united.”
At an open-air stage in front of the main gates of Sana University, an announcer welcomed a series of sheiks who voiced support for the demonstrations.
The country’s formal political opposition, which for the first time on Saturday joined street protests as a group, also welcomed the support of the commanders. “President Ali Abdullah Saleh will now see that change is a must,” said Mohammed Qahtan, the spokesman for the Joint Meetings Parties, Yemen’s coalition of opposition groups.
Asked if the Joint Meetings Parties would participate in a new government that Mr. Saleh is trying to form, he said, “It is not possible that the J.M.P. will participate in the new government if Saleh is president.”
On Sunday, Mr. Saleh dismissed the cabinet as antigovernment demonstrations in the capital spread. “A new cabinet will be formed in the near future,” a government official said by phone, although he requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
When asked about the timing of the dismissals by Mr. Saleh, the official replied: “This government was supposed to change a while ago; it passed its deadline. This isn’t a big surprise.”
While the implications of his announcement were unclear, Mr. Saleh, who has ruled this country for 33 years, has come under increased pressure from the United States and from officials in his own government over his handling of the protests.
In a sign of the Obama administration’s growing alarm at the government’s response, President Obama‘s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, telephoned Mr. Saleh on Sunday to express the White House’s deep concern.
An administration official said Mr. Brennan told Mr. Saleh that “any Yemeni government, no matter what its composition, must refrain from violence against protesters and support the right of the people of Yemen to engage in peaceful assembly.”
“Any government must also support political change that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people,” the official said.
The official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution, praised Mr. Saleh for ordering an investigation into the bloody clashes on Friday, and urged him “to follow through on that effort, and to ensure that anyone who has committed acts of violence is held accountable.”
Still, another, more senior administration official said that Friday’s violence “might have ruined any remaining chance of political dialogue between the Saleh government and the opposition.”
Nine Yemeni ambassadors to European and Arab countries sent a letter to Mr. Saleh on Sunday condemning “the massacre” on Friday. That letter followed the resignations by several high-ranking Yemeni officials, including the country’s envoy to the United Nations, its ambassador to Lebanon and its human rights minister.
Despite Friday’s violence against the protesters, the round-the-clock sit-in that branched out for more than a mile from Sana University’s main gate grew even larger Sunday with newly erected tents hung with photographs of the protesters who had been killed.
“The blood of the martyrs watered the tree of freedom,” said Abdullah Hamid, a protester, when asked about the reason behind the increase in the number of demonstrators. A student protest leader, Salah Sharafi, said, “They put the seeds of victory in us when they start to kill us.”
Abel Aziz al-Masbahy, an unemployed man who arrived Sunday from his home in Dhamar Province just south of Sana, stood in front of a poster with the photographs of two teenage boys and a young man from Dhamar who were killed on Friday. The words “Martyrs of the peaceful youth revolution” were written above them.
“Saleh lost his legitimacy in” our region, Mr. Masbahy said.
Two men from Khowlan, an area east of Sana known for kidnapping and a heavily armed population, were killed on Friday. One was shot as he sat in a green tent with a neighbor from Khowlan, Obad Dahamash, and about 20 other men. The bullet hole was still visible in the tent’s fabric. “At first our goal was to kick out Ali Saleh, his family and his gang,” Mr. Dahamash said. “Now we want to prosecute them.”
Tribal culture in Yemen has a strong tradition of violent retribution; however, members of the group swore they would remain peaceful.
“This revolution united us as tribes, and we are able to take our rights without using weapons, without using guns,” Mr. Dahamash said. “After this massacre killed people from Khowlan, it united us with other tribes, as all the tribes came and sympathized with us. They know that we don’t have our guns here and that we don’t want civil war.”
Laura Kasinof reported from Sana, Yemen, and J. David Goodman from New York. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
This article “Senior Yemeni Officers Call for Ouster of President” originally appeared at The New York Times.
© 2011 The New York Times Company
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