SANAA, Yemen (AP) - A top military commander and at least 18 other senior officers defected Monday to the opposition movement demanding the ouster of Yemen's embattled president, depriving the U.S.-allied ruler of most of his power base.
The looming collapse of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime throws into doubt the American campaign against a major al-Qaida wing that plotted attacks in the United States.
Monday's defections led to rival tanks being deployed in the streets of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, creating a potentially explosive situation and prompting Saleh's defense minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, to announce the military remained loyal to the longtime leader.
The armed forces will counter any plots against the government, Ahmed declared on state television, following a meeting of the National Defense Council, which is led by Saleh and includes Ahmed, the prime minister and the intelligence chief.
The defection of Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a longtime Saleh confidante and commander of the army's powerful 1st Armored Division, was seen by many as a turning point. It followed a major escalation in the regime's crackdown on demonstrators, when more than 40 people were killed in bloody clashes Friday.
Tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers directed by al-Ahmar fanned out around the Sanaa square that has become the epicenter of the opposition movement, moving in for the first time to protect demonstrators.
Al-Ahmar also sent tanks to the state television building, the Central Bank and the Defense Ministry. Just miles away, at least a dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers belonging to the Republican Guards, an elite force led by Saleh's son and one-time heir apparent, Ahmed, were deployed outside the presidential palace.
The deployment of al-Ahmar's troops in Sanaa was greeted by wild jubilation from protesters, many of whom posed with soldiers for photographs, greeted them with military style salutes or offered them roses.
Calling Al-Ahmar's defection "a turning point," Edmund J. Hull, U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said it showed "the military overall ... no longer ties its fate to that of the president."
"I'd say he's going sooner rather than later," Hull said.
The 65-year-old president and his government have faced down many serious challenges in the past, often forging fragile alliances with restive tribes to extend power beyond the capital. Most recently, he has battled a seven-year armed rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and an al-Qaida offshoot that is of great concern to the U.S.