In his first public comments since a wave of defections by senior military officers, Yemen's embattled President refused to step down in a defiant television address to the nation yesterday and warned of a protracted and bloody civil war.
More than a dozen of Yemen's military commanders, including the country's top general, have abandoned President Ali Abdullah Saleh and pledged their support for youth protesters calling for an end to his 32-year rule. With tanks from both sides on the streets of the capital Sana'a, negotiators last night managed to prevent the first shots being fired between rival forces that could descend into civil war, according to government officials.
Mr Saleh warned that continued "mutiny" by senior commanders, including Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, would lead to a long battle against his "legitimate, democratically elected" government.
"Those who want to seize power through coups must be aware that this will not happen. The homeland will not be stable; there will be a civil war, a bloody war. They should weigh this carefully," he said.
Thousands of protesters at a camp dubbed "Change Square", in front of the capital's university, gathered around a projector screen to watch Mr Saleh make his speech. Within the first few moments of realising that the statement was not a resignation, protesters began shouting, "Get out, Ali", and dismissed the rest of his speech as nonsense.
"He is bluffing and trying to intimidate the people. We won this revolution when the army joined us on Monday. It is simply a matter of time," said Adel al-Sarabi, one of the Sana'a University protest camp's main organisers.
The wave of defections have left President Saleh reliant on a dwindling band of military forces still loyal to him, including elite Republican Guard units under the command of members of his family.
Those units have positioned tanks surrounding the presidential palace and along Sana'a's main highway to protect the President from any potential rebel strikes. Other loyalist Republican Guard forces are stationed directly outside the city.
Many prominent tribal leaders across northern Yemen, including from Mr Saleh's own clan, have pledged their support for the revolution and have demanded that the President resign from power. More than half of Yemen's ambassadors worldwide have also resigned their posts. "We are at a crossroads. Saleh must ask himself if he wants a Gaddafi-like legacy," said one Yemeni government spokesman.
Pressure has mounted on President Saleh, a US ally in the fight against radical Islamists in the Arabian peninsula, after seven weeks of unrelenting anti-government protests. Demonstrations culminated in a rally on Friday which saw 52 people killed by rooftop snipers loyal to the regime.
Western countries fear the political crisis could hasten a slide into failed nation status for a country that borders the world's biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, and major shipping routes. Washington, trying to deal with the geopolitical upheaval caused by the Arab Spring, voiced rare concern about the upheaval in Yemen.
"We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen," said the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates. His chief concern was to avoid "diversion of attention" from opposing al-Qa'ida there.
Yemen's Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi fled Yemen for Riyadh on Monday to consult his Saudi counterparts on the recent military defections.
A civil war in Yemen is equally disturbing to the Saudis as it is to the Americans. "Hopefully they will tell Saleh to leave. But what Saleh does when he is backed into a corner is anyone's guess," says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and writer for the blog Waq al-Waq.
However, he said: "Republican Guard units have already begun to defect. If the shooting does start, it will take on a momentum all its own and many different interest groups could be dragged into the fighting," Mr Johnsen added. The opposition complains that Yemen under Mr Saleh has failed to meet the basic needs of the country's 23 million people. Unemployment is around 35 per cent, and 50 per cent for young people. Oil wealth is dwindling and water is running out.
"He shouldn't follow the style of Gaddafi by destroying the country and killing people," Yassin Noman, the head of Yemen's opposition coalition, said.
"After this long term of governing, he should say: Thank you my people, I leave you peacefully."
Yemen: A history of extremism
October 2000 Suicide bombers sail a vessel packed with explosives into the USS Cole, an American destroyer anchored in Aden, beginning a new era of concern over Yemen's status as a haven for terrorists: 17 sailors are killed. Al-Qa'ida and Osama bin Laden claim responsibility. FBI agents sent to investigate are met with a hostile reception. Later that month, four Yemenis bomb the British embassy in Sana'a.
February 2002 Under pressure from the US after 9/11, Yemen expels 100 foreign Islamic scholars. The US starts training Yemeni security forces to take on militants.
July 2007 A suicide attack on a convoy of tourists in Marib kills eight Spaniards and two Yemenis.
March-April 2008 Terrorists bomb targets including tourists, diplomats, police and foreign business people. The US embassy evacuates all non-essential personnel.
September 2008 The US embassy in Sana'a is hit by a car bomb and rocket attacks – 18 die, including six attackers.
December 2009 The "underpants bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – who met al-Qa'ida militant Anwar al-Awlaki during training in Yemen – fails in his attack on US flight.
October 2010 Packages containing explosives are found on cargo planes originating in Yemen and bound for the US. Hillary Clinton visits soon after to voice concern over al-Qa'ida's strength.
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