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Ally Yemen’s Violence, Instability Creates Worries for U.S.

March 24, 2011 at 6:24 PM EDT
In what has become a familiar narrative in the Arab world, clashes between Yemeni government troops and protesters demanding the resignation of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh have become increasingly violent. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And next tonight, the Arab revolution boils in the nation of Yemen.

Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yemen’s streets are becoming increasingly violent, with clashes between government troops and protesters over the attempted ouster of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Last Friday, more than 40 demonstrators were killed by security forces during fighting in the capital, Sanaa. Within days, a top military figure and longtime ally of Saleh, Gen. Ali Mohsen, announced he now supports the opposition, and a number of military units followed his lead.

MAN (through translator): The regime has committed all crimes and ugly massacres. We support you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mohsen is seen by many as Yemen’s second most powerful figure. But he said today he has no desire to take power himself.

President Saleh warned this week that dissent within the military could lead to civil war. But, in a surprise move this afternoon, he offered amnesty to military personnel who have — quote — “committed foolishness” and defected.

Yesterday, the country’s Parliament gave the president sweeping emergency powers. The suspension of the constitution now allows for arrest and detention without due process and bans further protests.

Saleh has been in power since 1978, holding office through a civil war and a number of uprisings and militant campaigns. His country, with a population of about 24 million, is the poorest in the Middle East, but in recent years, it has become an important U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida. The group has a significant presence in Yemen through its affiliate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates worried aloud about how the trouble in Yemen could affect the broader war on terror.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: We consider al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all of the franchises of al-Qaida right now. And so, instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is — is certainly my primary concern about the situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the meantime, Saleh has offered to step down at the end of this year, and call the presidential election for next January, instead of September 2013, when his term ends. But that hasn’t quieted the chorus calling for him to go now. Today, the leader of the country’s largest tribe said Saleh should step down immediately. And protesters insisted that they will go on pressing for that to happen. They have announced a new round of day of departure protests for tomorrow, despite the new prohibitions.