Three army commanders, including a top general, defected Monday to the opposition calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down as army tanks and armored vehicles deployed in the streets of the Yemeni capital.
The most senior of the three officers is Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a longtime confidante of Saleh and commander of the army’s powerful 1st Armored Division. Units of the division deployed Monday in a major square in Sanaa where protesters have been camping out to call for Saleh to step down.
All three officers belong to Saleh’s Hashid tribe, which called on Saleh to step down on Sunday — dealing his desperate attempts to cling on to power a serious blow.
The two others are Mohammed Ali Mohsen and Hameed al-Qusaibi, who both have the rank of brigadier.
News of the defections came one day after crowds flooded cities and towns across Yemen to mourn dozens of protesters killed Friday when Saleh’s security forces opened fire from rooftops on a demonstration in Sanaa.
Al-Ahmar has been a close confidante to Saleh for most of the 32 years the Yemeni president has been in power. He is a veteran of the 1994 civil war that saw Saleh’s army suppress an attempt by southern Yemen to secede four years after the two parts of the impoverished Arab nation united. The south had until then been a separate nation. Al-Ahmar also fought in recent years against Shiite rebels in the north of the country.
Al-Ahmar announced his defection in a message delivered by a close aide to the protest leaders at the Sanaa square that has for weeks been the epicenter of their movement.