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Yemen leader loses more generals

A top military commander and at least 18 other senior officers have defected to the opposition movement demanding the ousting of Yemen's embattled president and depriving the US-allied ruler of much 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.

The defections led to rival tanks being deployed in the streets of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, creating a potentially explosive situation and prompting Saleh's defence minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, to announce the military remained loyal to the long-time leader.

The armed forces will counter any plots against the government, Mr Ahmed declared on state television, following a meeting of the National Defence Council, which is led by Mr Saleh and includes Mr Ahmed, the prime minister and the intelligence chief.

The defection of Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a longtime Saleh confidante and commander of the army's powerful 1st armoured 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 on Friday.

Speaking in Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called Mr Saleh's resignation "unavoidable" and pledged "support to all those that fight for democracy."

Tanks, armoured vehicles and soldiers directed by Maj Gen al-Ahmar fanned out around the Sanaa square that has become the epicentre of the opposition movement, moving in for the first time to protect demonstrators.

Maj Gen Al-Ahmar also sent tanks to the state television building, the Central Bank and the Defence Ministry. Just miles away, at least a dozen tanks and armoured personnel carriers belonging to the Republican Guards, an elite force led by Mr Saleh's son and one-time heir apparent, Ahmed, were deployed outside the presidential palace.

The deployment of Maj Gen 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, US ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said it showed "the military overall no longer ties its fate to that of the president".

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