SANA'A //President Ali Abdullah Saleh has warned that civil war looms in Yemen after a tide of military defections from his government.
Hundreds of military leaders, businessmen, MPs, diplomats and government officials declared their support of the youth-led revolution after the defection on Monday of Major General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, the commander of the army's 1st Armoured Division.
Troops from the Republican Guards, an elite army regiment led by Mr Saleh's son, Ahmed, seized control of the air force base in the western province of Hodiedah after its commander, Ahmed al Sanahani, pledged his support to the anti-Saleh protesters, local media reported yesterday.
In a televised speech, during a meeting with military leaders yesterday, Mr Saleh, 69, said that commanders who had joined the protest movement should "return to reason" and avoid opening divisions within the army.
"Those people who are seeking power through coups should not think that things will stabilise; this is not the case … this will lead to civil wars and bloodshed," he warned.
"The people are armed and nobody can twist the arm of the other. The time of coups has gone. You have to come back, there is a chance to come back and apologise," Mr Saleh said.
The Joint Meeting Parties, an opposition coalition of six parties, dismissed Mr Saleh's comments as fear-mongering.
"We completely reject this rhetoric and threats of civil wars. He is trying to invest in the panic of the people and we are fed up with such fears, and this is why the people want him to leave immediately," said Mohammed al Sabri, an opposition leader.
The president, whose 33-year grip on power is dramatically eroding away, recently announced a raft of concessions meant to appease the protesters. The offers included a promise to form a unity government and that Mr Saleh would not extend his term when it expires in 2013.
Earlier this month, he rejected an opposition plan for a smooth exit by the end of the year and announced plans to draft a new constitution with a parliamentary system. All offers have been rejected by the opposition and protesters who have stuck to their demand that he step down immediately.
Yesterday, Mr Saleh offered to move his resignation to January, after a parliamentary election.
"The president is ready to leave power by the end of the year after a new government based on parliamentary election is formed," said Ahmed al Sufi, Mr Saleh's press secretary, adding that the president would not consider transferring power to the military.
Mr Sabri said the offer was not enough and that protesters would march to the palace on Friday.
"The man [Saleh] is politically dead and his words are deadlier. Talking about political deals and initiatives now is impossible after more than 150 people were killed and 2,000 wounded," Mr Sabri said.
On Friday, one of the deadliest days in two months of protests, security forces and snipers loyal to Mr Saleh opened fire on demonstrators in Sana'a, killing as many as 50 people and wounding 639 others.
Tens of thousands gathered yesterday at the protest sites in different cities, calling for those responsible for the attack to be brought to justice.
Abubakr al Qirbi, Yemen's foreign minister, returned from Riyadh yesterday, where he had been requested by Mr Saleh to seek Saudi-led, Gulf Arab mediation to help solve the stalemate. A diplomatic source said there had been no success in involving the other countries, according to Reuters.
France became the first Western power to call publicly for Mr Saleh to stand down. Its foreign minister, Alain Juppé, yesterday described Mr Saleh's departure as "unavoidable".
Ahmed al Zurkah, an independent analyst and a freelance writer, said the absence of an international consensus demanding Mr Saleh step down gave him breathing space.
"The president still enjoys some influence on some tribal communities and has control over a good chunk of the army. The position of the international community and the Gulf States is still unclear. He is also betting on the card of al Qa'eda and instability after his regime departure. These make him able to manoeuvre," Mr al Zurkah said.
Mr al Zurkah, however, dismissed the possibility that Mr Saleh would opt for armed confrontations with his opponents.
"His departure is a question of time and this depends on the pressure by the international community and Gulf states to convince him to depart without more casualties," said Mr Zurkah said.