Yemen military commanders join opposition as tanks take to the streets
Senior officers and troops side with protesters as envoys, editors, party chiefs and governors call on President Saleh to step down
Tom Finn in Sana’a
guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 March 2011 15.10 GMT
Protesters in Sana’a celebrate the defection of key military and diplomatic figures Link to this video
After 32 years in power Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, looks destined to become the next Arab leader to be toppled as 11 military commanders, including a senior general, defected from the regime, promising to protect anti-government protesters in the capital.
General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a long-time confidant of the president and head of the Yemeni army in the country’s north-west, announced he would support “the peaceful revolution” by sending soldiers under his command to protect the thousands gathered in the capital demanding for Saleh to step down.
“According to what I’m feeling, and according to the feelings of my partner commanders and soldiers … I announce our support and our peaceful backing to the youth revolution,” Ali Mohsen said via a video statement released before noon.
Ali Mohsen’s pledge opened the floodgates to a stream of defections from the regime. Scores of ambassadors, regional governors, editors of government newspapers, prominent businessmen and senior members of the ruling party are among those who have either quit or announced their allegiance to protesters in the past few hours.
Within hours, seven Yemeni ambassadors – to Japan, Syria, the Czech Republic, Jordan, China, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait – announced they were standing down.
“The regime is crumbling, there is very little support left for the president now,” said Mohammed al-Naqeeb, head of the ruling party in Aden who resigned this afternoon.
Minutes after Ali Mohsen’s defection, tanks belonging to the republican guards, an elite force led by the president’s son Ahmed Ali, rolled into the streets of Sana’a, setting the stage for a standoff between defectors and loyalists.
Republican guard tanks took up a strategic location across the city at Saleh’s residence, the ministry of defence and at the central bank. Meanwhile, tanks of Ali Mohsen’s 1st armoured division took positions elsewhere in the city.
At first protesters gathered at Sana’a University were unsure what to make of the general’s pledge, with many fearing an increased military presence might mean further attacks.
But confusion soon gave way to jubilation as hundreds of soldiers from the 1st armoured division arrived on foot, greeted by protesters who kissed them and hoisted them onto their shoulders.
Soon a line of policemen, soldiers, and businessmen had formed each waiting their turn to step up onto a huge stage and announce their resignations to a roaring crowd of thousands.
“We’ve bought you a birthday present ya Ali, it’s a plane ticket to Saudi,” shouted Haeman Saeed, a leading Yemeni businessman after announcing his resignation from the ruling party.
“The army are with you,” roared Abdallah al-Qahdi, a senior military general from Aden who was fired from his position last week for refusing to put down a peaceful demonstration.
Al-Qahdi said many regime insiders had been waiting for someone like Ali Mohsen to lead the way, and he expected most of the army to have defected by nightfall.
The outcome remains unclear. Analysts say there may soon be a violent standoff within the military between those who have defected and the significant portions of the army still under the president’s control.
“Unfortunately the president and his sons still have control over powerful sections of the military including the republican guard and the air force,” said Yemeni political analyst Abdul Irayani.
“We are all praying that Saleh leaves quickly and quietly to prevent the situation deteriorating rapidly.”
Others suggest the resignations may have been negotiated behind the scenes.
“I believe this is a step towards a transitional military government in Yemen,” said Abdullah Al-Faqih, a professor at Sana’a University.
The army split followed Saleh’s decision to sack his entire government after tens of thousands of mourners flooded the streets of the Yemeni capital on Sunday in a mass funeral for the 52 protesters killed on Friday in a sniper attack by loyalists.
The president asked the cabinet to serve as a caretaker government until he forms a new administration.
Piling further pressure on Saleh, the country’s most powerful tribal confederation also called on him to step down.
Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the leader of Hashed, which includes Saleh’s tribe, issued a statement on Sunday asking the president to respond to the people’s demands and leave peacefully. It was co-signed by several religious leaders.
Ali Mohsen is between 50 and 60 years old, and is generally perceived to be the second most powerful man in Yemen.
Most reports indicate Ali Mohsen is the cousin of Saleh’s two half-brothers, although there is much confusion on this matter, with some claims that he is himself a half-brother to Saleh.
Who is Ali Mohsen?
General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar’s name is mentioned in hushed tones among most Yemenis, and he rarely appears in public. Those who know him say he is charming and gregarious.
As commander of the north-east region and the 1st armoured division, Ali Mohsen acted as Saleh’s iron fist.
The area Ali Mohsen controls includes the governorates of Sa’ada, Hodeidah, Hajja, Amran, and Mahwit, and he is more powerful than any governor.
Ali Mohsen was instrumental in the north’s victory in the 1994 civil war and in crushing the recent Sa’ada uprising. It is estimated that he controls more than half of all military resources and assets.