SANAA, Yemen – Two powerful tribal chiefs in Yemen joined opposition forces demanding the ouster of the country's longtime president Saturday, a new sign the embattled leader might be losing his grip on the impoverished, conflict-ridden country.
The defections were a blow to President Ali Abdullah Saleh because the chiefs abandoning him are from his own tribe, the Hashid. That was a signal that he may not be able to capitalize on tribal rivalries to maintain power, a tactic he has successfully employed in the past.
Tens of thousands of protesters, from both the Hashid tribe and Baqil, the second largest tribal federation in Yemen, took to the streets in Emran, a tribal stronghold north of Sanaa 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.
Since coming to power some 32 years ago, Saleh has relied heavily on his tribe and its connections for support. The defections threaten to further erode his 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.
In recent weeks, Yemen has had many protests inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that led to the ouster of their leaders. Saleh has promised to step down after national elections in 2013, but the demonstrators want him out now.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in a main square in the Yemeni capital for Friday prayers that later turned into mass protests to demand that the U.S.-backed president step down.
Government forces have failed to halt the protests, which have included students, academics, writers and artists.
On Friday, four people were killed and several wounded in the southern port city of Aden when security forces used tear gas and fired bullets in the air to disperse hundreds of protesters. Other demonstrators were staged in Taiz and Hadramout.
On Wednesday, Saleh said he had ordered his security services to protect protesters, stop all clashes and prevent direct confrontation between government supporters and opponents.