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Protests Intensify in Yemen, Key Figures Desert President Saleh

An anti-government protester, center, wearing a gas mask, chants slogans along with others during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa,Yemen, March 21, 2011

Protests intensified dramatically Monday across Yemen as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the central squares of towns and cities to demand the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Key military and political figures deserted the president, although the defense minister insisted the military would remain loyal to him.

As protests intensified Monday, a number of top political and military figures announced they were deserting Saleh. Former allies of the president also expressed outrage about violence against the mostly young protesters, which left scores dead and wounded Friday.

General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, head of the first armored division, announced he was supporting the protesters and that he had deployed troops in the capital to protect them.

He said Yemen is falling into an utter state of crisis that is threatening its political existence. He argued that the chaos is the result of a leadership unwilling to govern within the framework of the law and the constitution, and marginalizes public opinion.

Despite numerous defections, however, Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed went on state TV to announce that the military would remain loyal to Saleh. He insists that the Yemeni military supports Saleh, that its officers will uphold their oaths to defend legality and legitimacy, and will not tolerate any military coup.

Al Jazeera TV reported that dozens of military commanders had pledged to support the protest movement, while several top ministers and members of the president’s ruling party resigned. Yemeni ambassadors to at least seven countries, including Saudi Arabia, also have resigned.

Yemeni Health Minister Abdel Karim Rida captured the mood of public outrage, demanding that those responsible for Friday’s violence against protesters be punished. He said he strongly condemns the bloody attacks, which have moved the hearts of all Yemenis. He added that he is calling on judicial authorities to hold a public trial of those responsible for the violence.

Yemen Post newspaper Editor-in-Chief Hakim Almasmari said the military defections from Saleh’s camp indicate that his government is on the verge of collapse. "Right now it's game over for Saleh and we predict the end of this regime in the next 24 hours. That's our feeling, 24 hours, it won't go past that. 90 percent of the military will be in the hands of the revolution before nightfall."

Another top analyst in Sana'a, who asked that his name not be used for safety reasons, said that the situation in the capital was "electric" and that many people believe the government is about to collapse. This analyst said it is not clear, though, what or who would fill the vacuum.

Hakim Almasmari thinks Saleh could be preparing to hand over power to the Yemeni military, however, so that he can step down peacefully. He questions, however, if that solution will meet the approval of opposition parties or the protest movement.

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