Yemen's embattled president suffered back-to-back blows Saturday: hundreds of thousands called for his ouster in the largest anti-government rallies yet and two powerful chiefs from his own tribe abandoned him.
The huge turnout reported in towns and cities across Yemen and the defection of the tribal chiefs were the latest signs that President Ali Abdullah Saleh may be losing his grip on the impoverished, conflict-ridden country.
Saleh appeared to be hardening his stance, after initially offering protesters to engage in dialogue and promising that the security forces would not use force against them. Yemeni TV on Saturday quoted him as telling army commanders that the armed forces will not hesitate to "defend the security of the nation as well as the unity, freedom and democracy."
On Friday, troops opened fire on demonstrators in the port city of Aden, killing at least four and wounding 43, according to security and medical officials. The London-based Amnesty International said it has received reports that at least 11 protesters were killed in Yemen on Friday, and that security forces prevented residents from taking some of the wounded to hospitals.
"Events in Yemen are taking a serious turn for the worse and the Yemeni security forces are showing reckless disregard for human life," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
In recent weeks, Yemen has seen daily protests, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Saleh, a key ally in the U.S. campaign against the al-Qaida terror network, has promised to step down after national elections in 2013, but the demonstrators want him out now and have rejected his offer of dialogue.
Large crowds were reported Saturday in Yemens largest cities, including about 80,000 in the capital of Sanaa, about 150,000 in the city of Taiz and 30,000 in Aden, according to security officials. Large rallies were also held in six other areas, including in Emran, a tribal stronghold north of Sanaa.
Tens of thousands of members from both the Hashid tribe and Baqil, the second largest tribal federation in Yemen, marched in Emran to denounce the president and demand his ouster.
In a speech to the protesters, Sheikh Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar, a key Hashid leader and a longtime ally to Saleh, said he is resigning from the leadership of the ruling party.
"I call on every honorable Yemeni to work to topple the regime" said al-Ahmar to the applause of the protesters, many carrying weapons. "The regime should go and be replaced by state institutions."
In a separate statement Saturday, Mohammad Abdel Illah al-Qadi, a key leader of the Sanhan, a Hashid affiliate and a longtime bulwark of Saleh's regime, said he was resigning from the ruling party.
One of Saleh's political survival strategies in 32 years in power had been to capitalize on tribal rivalries and loyalties. However, the chiefs who joined opposition forces Saturday were from his own tribe, the Hashid. The defections threaten to further erode Saleh's power base at a time when the country is also facing a separatist movement in the south and trying to combat growing al-Qaida activity.
Youth leaders, who have played a major role in the protests, on Saturday rejected Saleh's offer of dialogue.
"We will not make ourselves busy with a ridiculous dialogue because we know that this aims to show the regime is good," said Abdul-Rahman al-Julbain, an activist in Sanaa. "The regime is lying and the biggest proof is that we did not get any invitation for talks."