SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told army commanders on Tuesday the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state could descend into civil war because of efforts to stage what he called a "coup" against his rule.
Senior army commanders said on Monday they had switched support to pro-democracy activists who have been protesting for weeks, demanding that the veteran ruler stand down.
"Those who want to climb up to power through coups should know that this is out of the question. The homeland will not be stable, there will be a civil war, a bloody war. They should carefully consider this," he said in a speech before commanders.
General Ali Mohsen, commander of the northwest military zone and Saleh's kinsmen from the al-Ahmar clan, said on Al Jazeera on Monday he was backing the protestors and himself warned of civil war if repression of protest continued.
"I say clearly to the brother officers (who resigned) as a result of weakness and media intimidation: The media has terrorized them until they fell like autumn leaves and they shall regret it," Saleh said in the speech, which was later broadcast on Yemeni state television.
In a separate speech to tribal leaders in Sanaa, many of whom say they back the protesters, Saleh repeated his civil war warning and added that the country could face disintegration.
"You have an agenda to tear down the country, the country will be divided into three instead of two halfs. A southern part, northern part and a middle part. This is what is being sought by defectors against the unity," he said, referring to northern Shi'ite rebels and al Qaeda militants.
Western countries fear the political crisis could hasten a slide into failed nation status for a country that borders the world's biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia, and major shipping routes. One scenario could see the country split into separate zones along tribal, military or regional lines.
Al Qaeda has already used Yemen to attempt attacks in Saudi Arabia and the United States in the past two years. The Shi'ite Houthi movement has staged a number of revolts against Sanaa rule.
(Reporting by Mohamed Sudam, writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Ralph Boulton)