TUNIS, Tunisia — Pressure on the embattled, U.S.-backed president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, rose sharply Monday with the resignation of several top military commanders, who threw their support behind the thousands of anti-government demonstrators who've called for Saleh's ouster.
The military defections were the most significant of a rapidly growing list of senior government officials and diplomats who've abandoned Saleh in recent days. The erosion of Saleh's support in Yemen's fractious tribal society signaled that he could be the next longtime autocrat to be toppled by the popular protests shaking the Middle East.
Saleh's 32-year grip on the Arab world's poorest nation has quickly unraveled since Friday, when pro-government forces shot and killed 52 people at anti-government demonstrations — one of the harshest crackdowns by any regime in more than two months of uprisings during the so-called Arab Spring. On Sunday, Saleh fired his cabinet, apparently to head off a wave of resignations in protest of the violence.
In remarks carried by the state news agency, Saleh sounded a stubborn note, saying that "the great majority of the Yemeni people" were with him, and that "those who are calling for chaos, violence, hate and sabotage are only a tiny minority."
As Saleh's loyalist Republican Guard encircled his presidential palace with tanks in the capital, Sanaa, his defense minister said in a statement that the armed forces wouldn't allow "a coup against democracy" even as at least six generals and dozens of officers had reportedly defected.
The U.S. Embassy issued a warning urging Americans in Yemen to stay indoors Monday evening "due to continued political instability and uncertainty in Sanaa and the rest of Yemen."
President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, telephoned Saleh over the weekend to express deep concern over the shootings, but so far Obama hasn't called for the removal of Saleh, who cooperates with the U.S. military on counterterrorism and receives about $300 million a year in defense support.
On Monday, the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said that "the departure of President Saleh is unavoidable."
In a sign that Saleh was feeling for a way out of the crisis, he dispatched his foreign minister to Saudi Arabia on Monday to deliver a message to King Abdullah, state media reported. The neighbors have had troubled relations, but many Yemenis believed that Saleh — like the deposed Tunisian leader, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali — could be looking to Saudi Arabia for a place to retire.
What Saleh told the Saudis is "the million-dollar question," said a veteran Yemeni diplomat to a Western nation, who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name. "It could be asking for a mediation attempt. It could be asking, 'Is my house ready?'"
Yemen's ambassador to Saudi Arabia also called for Saleh's ouster on Monday, and by day's end senior Yemeni diplomats in 20 countries had announced their support for the anti-government demonstrators, according to the Arab news channel Al Jazeera. The defections included all staff at the Yemeni Embassy in Washington except for the ambassador, the news channel reported.
The most significant defection was that of Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh, considered the country's senior military officer and commander of forces in Yemen's northwest, whose family hails from the same village as the president. The general said that his forces would protect the protesters who've been occupying Taghyir ("Change") Square for several weeks.
"I announce our support and our peaceful backing to the youth revolution," the general said on Al Jazeera. "We are going to fulfill our duties in preserving security and stability."
Demonstrators cheered the news and said they're planning for large protests on Friday, but they worried about a last-gasp crackdown by the Republican Guard, which is under the command of Saleh's son, Ahmed.
"Saleh doesn't have a strong hand in the military now except for the units under his son ... and even inside those units I also think there is conflict because many people feel sympathy with the youth revolution," said Khalid al Anisi, a leading human rights activist who's joined the protests. "If he wants to test their loyalty, he will lose the battle and find himself alone."
Saleh has ruled by patronage and force, but many analysts say that his departure could create even deeper internal divisions if the country's patchwork of tribes fail to agree on a new political leader.
Already the country is facing two internal rebellions, in the north and south, and has been a focal point in several terrorist plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day 2009, which was traced to al Qaida's offshoot in the country.
"Although the broad array of opposition forces have coalesced around demanding Saleh's ouster, they are highly fragmented and have yet to present a unified vision for post-Saleh Yemen," the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy, wrote in a note to clients Monday. "Further, increasing tension could result in violence with unpredictable outcomes."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's Middle East page. McClatchy Newspapers 2011
For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's Middle East page.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011