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In Yemen, top military commanders defect from Saleh regime

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's half-brother defected today, deploying troops to protect demonstrators. Friday's unprecedented violence led eight diplomats to resign.

By Erik StierCorrespondent / March 21, 2011

Yemeni army officers react as they join antigovernment protesters demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, March 21. Three Yemeni army commanders, including a top general, defected Monday to the opposition calling for an end to President Saleh's rule, as army tanks and armored vehicles deployed in support of thousands protesting in the capital.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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Sanaa, Yemen

Several of Yemen’s top military commanders – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh's half-brother – defected today, pledging to protect opposition demonstrators after unprecedented violence in Sanaa on Friday.

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The defections, which follow the resignations of eight ambassadors over the weekend, remove a critical base of support for the 32-year leader. (Editor's note: The original version overstated how many people resigned this weekend.)

While protesters in Sanaa were jubilant, Yemenis and analysts expressed concern that the developments could foreshadow a military coup or the outbreak of war between the country’s fractured armed forces.

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“Saleh’s options have been becoming more limited by the day," says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University. "Now there are two left – he can try to hang on, which will likely lead to bloodshed, or he can step down.”

For now, at least, Saleh appears determined to stay in power. His defense minister vowed today that the armed forces would remain faithful to 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," said the statement, according to Reuters, which obtained a copy.

Ahmar deploys troops to protect protesters

Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the president's half-brother and longtime ally until today, led the military defections with a televised news conference announcing that he had deployed forces to protect demonstrators.

“Yemen today is suffering from a comprehensive and dangerous crisis, and it is widespread,” said General Ahmar today. “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 fulfill our duties."

Several other top commanders, including Gen. Ali Abdullaha Aliewa, adviser of the Yemeni supreme leader of the army, and Brig. Gen. Mohammed Ali Mohsen, head of the eastern division, joined Ahmar, who is head of the first armored division and responsible for the northwestern military zone.

“Major General al-Ahmar's announcement opened the floodgates to military defections,” says Mr. Johnsen, adding that no one wanted to be the last off a sinking ship. “He has been instrumental to keeping Saleh in power and this calculated move has set him up in a position where he and other upper ranks will be able to maintain their positions in a future government.”

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