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Yemen military defections imperil U.S. ally

SAN'A, Yemen -- A top military commander and at least 18 other senior officers defected yesterday 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.

The defections led to rival tanks being deployed in the streets of the capital, San'a, creating a potentially explosive situation and prompting Saleh's defense minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, to announce that 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 confidant 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.

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

The deployment of al-Ahmar's troops in San'a 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. -- AP

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