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Yemen President Ready to Step Down at End of Year

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks during a media conference in Sana'a, March 18, 2011
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks during a media conference in Sana'a, March 18, 2011

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh says he is willing to hold early elections this year and to leave office by January, in the face of intensifying opposition protests against his 32-year-rule.

A spokesman Tuesday said Saleh has offered to step down in an orderly transition of power, after previously saying he would hang on until his term ends in 2013.

Reuters reports a coalition of opposition groups has rejected Saleh's offer, and insists that he resign immediately. A spokesman for the opposition told the news agency "the coming hours will be decisive."

Saleh has warned military leaders that any attempt at a coup will lead to civil war, after several top commanders defected to the side of opposition protesters.

In a nationally televised address Tuesday, Saleh said any division within the military will have a negative impact on the entire nation.

Yemen's top military figure, Major General Mohsen al-Ahmar, was among the military leaders who defected Monday. Ahmar said he would "support the peaceful revolution" after he deployed thousands of soldiers to protect protesters who have been calling for the president to step down.

A wave of government officials, tribal leaders and diplomats defected after gunmen loyal to the president opened fire on a group of protesters Friday, killing 52 people.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Moscow Tuesday, said he is concerned that instability in Yemen could distract from the fight against al-Qaida in the country.

The United States has supported Saleh's fight against terrorist groups operating in Yemen.

Asked whether the U.S. will continue to support the Yemeni leader, Secretary Gates said he would not comment on Yemen's "internal affairs."

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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