SANA'A // The threat of internecine civil war intensified in Yemen yesterday as a top general pledged military support for protesters and the embattled president continued to haemorrhage domestic and international support.
As rival tank battalions took up positions around a city already paralysed by tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators, analysts said President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced an inevitable decision: either abandon his fragile hold on power or launch in an even more violent and unpopular campaign against the protesters.
Abdulbri Taher, an independent political analysts said, in reference to tensions between Yemen's mostly Sunni government and the strong Shia minority located primarily in the north: "The regime is like a sinking ship where the passengers are fleeing death. Saleh has bet on fighting; cracking down with thugs and security forces, and also on inciting sectarian divisions. But this has failed before the resistance of the protests.
"I think the man [Mr Saleh] will fight to ensure that he escapes accountability. He might fight to bring in someone or a government that would ensure he leaves without being held accountable."
The potential for heavily armed street battles worsened yesterday when Major General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, commander of the army's powerful 1st Armoured Division, announced his defection to leaders at al Tagheer Square, the centre of the protest movement.
In a statment aired by the Dubai-based al Arabiya television station last night, Gen alaAhmar made this appeal to the army: "I appeal to my brothers in the security and army not to respond to any orders from any person or any leadership in confronting the sons of your people at the protest sites or your brothers in the security and military. you should keep the achievements of the country and stand by your brothers and their peaceful demands."
Some of the division's tanks and armoured vehicles then deployed in the square, which protesters have occupied for more than a month calling for the resignation of Mr Saleh and sweeping social and political reforms.
The anti-government camp gained momentum and powerful endorsements after a bloody crackdown by security forces on Friday that left as many as 50 protesters dead and hundreds more wounded, many from head shots from rooftop snipers and live rounds fired by police.
Maj Gen al Ahmar said: "The state, represented by the president, is totally responsible for the blood that was shed," declaring that his defection was "an answer to the developments in the streets".
After Maj Gen al Ahmar's announcement, Brigadier Generals Mohammed Ali Mohssein and Hameed Qusaibi, along with several other army officers, promised their support to the mostly youth-led rebellion.
The military defections come after a flurry of high-level resignations in recent days that has included, according to local media tallies, 20 ambassadors (local media reports said four ambassadors resigned and 16 others declared support to the revolution without resigning) and at least three cabinet ministers. Late on Sunday, Mr Saleh fired his remaining cabinet in an apparent effort to thwart further resignations.
Yesterday, dozens of businessmen and MPs resigned from the ruling General People's Congress also stepped down in protest of the government's heavy-handed tactics. Mohammed Abdu Saeed and Abdulwasee Hail Saeed, two well-known business tycoons, walked away from the ruling party and joined the protests.
On Sundays, Sheikh Sadek al Ahmar, leader of the Hashid confederation, Yemen's most influential tribal bloc that includes Mr Saleh's clan, also called for the president to step down in a statement endorsed by religious leaders and other tribal chiefs.
Even so, elements of Mr Saleh's dwindling power base appeared to digging in for a fight following yesterday's events.
Mohammed Naser Ahmed, Yemen's defence minister, said in a televised speech after the defections that the army would not allow "the overthrow of the constitutional legitimacy" and that the military will respect the oath they made "protecting the country and political leadership".
The announcement came after a meeting for the supreme national defence council chaired by Mr Saleh. The state media reported that the council will stay in a state permanent meeting.
Tanks and armoured vehicles of the republican guards, an elite army regiment led by Mr Saleh's son, were deployed heavily around the presidential palace, banks and key government buildings.
Yemenis reacted to the deployment of tanks and armoured vehicles with a rush on grocery stores for food and other neccesities, as witnessed by The National. Some said they were stocking up in preparation for a lengthy battle that could break out at any minute. But tens of thousands poured into the protest sites in different cities, mainly Sana'a, Taiz and Aden.