An anti-government protester waves the Yemen national flag as he sits on a lamp post during a rally to demand the ouster of Yemenâ€™s President Saleh outside Sanaa University 3/22/2011. Unrelenting anti-government protests and fresh defections among the ruling elite added to the pressure on Saleh to step down after 32 years in power.
SANA, Yemen â€” In an apparent erosion of military support for Yemenâ€™s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, five army commanders on Monday threw their support behind protesters calling for his immediate ouster.
The move came as one of the countryâ€™s most important tribal leaders, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, said on Monday that he would join the countryâ€™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. al-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. By swinging the weight of the Hashid tribes behind the protests, Mr. al-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 the capital, 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 countryâ€™s ambassadors, according to a diplomat at the Yemeni Embassy in Washington who asked not to be identified.
Yemenâ€™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.
â€œThis is a replicate of the changes that have happened in Egypt,â€ said a high-ranking Yemeni diplomat in Europe who spoke on condition of anonymity. But, he added, â€œIt is too early to see where the shift would lead to.â€
The military commanders included Gen. Mohamed Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, who leads forces in the east, Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh, who commands those in the northwest, and three other brigadier generals. They said they declared their support for the protesters after watching the bloody clashes on Friday.
Brigadier General Saleh, in an appearance on Al Jazeera television on Monday, cited the suppression of peaceful protests and said the country was being pushed to the brink of civil war.
The countryâ€™s formal political opposition, which for the first time on Saturday joined street protests as a group, welcomed the support of the commanders. â€œPresident Ali Abdullah Saleh will now see that change is a must,â€ said Mohammed Qahtan, the spokesperson for the Joint Meetings Parties, Yemenâ€™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, â€œIt is not possible that the J.M.P. will participate in the new government if Saleh is president.â€
On Sunday, President Saleh dismissed the cabinet as antigovernment demonstrations in the capital spread. â€œA new cabinet will be formed in the near future,â€ 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 President Saleh, the official replied: â€œThis government was supposed to change a while ago; it passed its deadline. This isnâ€™t a big surprise.â€
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 administrationâ€™s growing alarm at the governmentâ€™s response, President Obamaâ€˜s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, telephoned Mr. Saleh on Sunday to express the White Houseâ€™s deep concern.
An administration official said Mr. Brennan told Mr. Saleh that â€œany 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.â€
â€œAny government must also support political change that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people,â€ 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 â€œto follow through on that effort, and to ensure that anyone who has committed acts of violence is held accountable.â€
Still, another, more senior administration official said that Fridayâ€™s violence â€œmight have ruined any remaining chance of political dialogue between the Saleh government and the opposition.â€
Nine Yemeni ambassadors to European and Arab countries sent a letter to Mr. Saleh on Sunday condemning â€œthe massacreâ€ on Friday. That letter followed the resignations by several high-ranking Yemeni officials, including the countryâ€™s envoy to the United Nations, its ambassador to Lebanon and its human rights minister.
Despite Fridayâ€™s violence against the protesters, a round-the-clock sit-in that branched out for more than a mile from Sana Universityâ€™s main gate grew even larger Sunday with newly erected tents hung with photographs of the protesters who had been killed.
â€œThe blood of the martyrs watered the tree of freedom,â€ 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, â€œThey put the seeds of victory in us when they start to kill us.â€
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 â€œMartyrs of the peaceful youth revolutionâ€ were written above them.
â€œSaleh lost his legitimacy inâ€ 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 tentâ€™s fabric. â€œAt first our goal was to kick out Ali Saleh, his family and his gang,â€ Mr. Dahamash said. â€œNow we want to prosecute them.â€
Tribal culture in Yemen has a strong tradition of violent retribution; however, members of the group swore they would remain peaceful.
â€œThis revolution united us as tribes, and we are able to take our rights without using weapons, without using guns,â€ Mr. Dahamash said.
â€œAfter 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 donâ€™t have our guns here and that we donâ€™t want civil war.â€
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington and J. David Goodman from New York.