TUNIS, Tunisia — In a last-ditch gambit to stay in power, Yemen's longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, offered on Tuesday to step down after parliamentary elections in January as more officials and military units abandoned him to support anti-government protesters.
The protesters have demanded that Saleh, who has ruled for 32 years, resign immediately, but he said that doing so would incite "civil war" in his impoverished and deeply tribal Arabian Peninsula nation.
Saleh's offer didn't appease opposition leaders or slow the tide of defections, however.
An air force unit in the restive western province of Hodaida announced that it would no longer support the regime, and about 30 officers barricaded themselves inside an air base. A resident reached by telephone said that more than 200 members of Saleh's elite Republican Guard raced to the scene with tanks and heavy artillery, raising the specter of clashes, but as of late Tuesday the air force unit hadn't surrendered the base.
Never miss a local story.
Mohammed al Sabry, a spokesman for Yemen's main opposition coalition, said it "rejects the offer" of Saleh's future departure, news agencies reported.
Saleh, a U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism and recipient of some $300 million a year in military support, now seems to be the likeliest domino to fall next in the historic tide of uprisings sweeping the Arab world.
Weeks ago, Saleh tried to stave off unrest by promising not to run for re-election when his term expires in 2013 — he made the same promise in 2005 — but support from within his government has rapidly eroded since a shocking burst of violence on Friday, when his armed forces and snipers opened fire on protesters and killed 52 people.
A European diplomat, who requested anonymity to speak more frankly, said it is "probably just a matter of time now" before Saleh leaves office. The defection on Monday of Gen. Ali Mohsen, a relative of the president and the second most powerful figure in the government "is fundamentally the beginning of the end game," he said.
Saleh's departure from office is being greeted with nervousness in the U.S., which has seen in him a willing partner in the fight against one of al Qaida's most powerful affiliates, Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has backed Saleh against his internal opponents, also is nervous.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, traveling in Moscow, voiced concern about the impact of Saleh's possible departure on efforts to fight what he called "perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of al Qaida right now."
"Instability and diversion of attention from dealing with (al Qaida) is certainly my primary concern about the situation," Gates said.
The Obama administration hasn't called on Saleh to step down, or critiqued his concessions to the Yemeni opposition, in sharp contrast to its aggressive push last month that helped precipitate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation. At that time, Washington repeatedly rejected Mubarak's offers of change as insufficient.
Fueling fears of chaos, Yemen's military has split into two camps, with several senior officers and their units having abandoned Saleh and pledged to protect demonstrators, while the elite Republican Guard forces under the command of Saleh's son remain loyal to him.
In a meeting with military officials, Saleh said that the "time of coups is over" and blamed the media for inciting commanders to join the opposition, the official Saba news agency reported.
"There are a constitution, laws, regulations and people's will, and a minority cannot control the fate of the nation," he said.
Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al Kirbi, traveled to Saudi Arabia on Monday in what many observers believed was a bid to get Saudi King Abdullah to broker a political deal that could ensure Saleh's safe exit.
Reached by phone late Tuesday, Kirbi told McClatchy that Saleh "can survive" the crisis and that his opponents should allow him to organize a transitional period that would pave the way for the next government.
"We hope that mediation will work for the benefit of Yemen's stability," Kirbi said. "The president is working on an all-inclusive settlement in which everyone will participate."
(Strobel reported from Washington. Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this report from Cairo.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's Middle East page.