Allies desert Yemeni leader, Syria protests spread

Mon Mar 21, 2011 8:22pm GMT

By Mohamed Sudam and Khaled Oweis

SANAA/DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Popular unrest swelled into a crisis for one Arab autocrat and began to rattle another long seen as immune on Monday as leading figures parted ways with Yemen's president and street protests spread in Syria.

Top generals, ambassadors and some tribes endorsed the goals of Yemen's anti-government protesters in a glancing blow to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as he strove to withstand demands for his resignation after 32 years in power.

Saleh, an important U.S. and Saudi ally in the world's paramount oil-exporting region, has survived a civil war, tribal revolts and al Qaeda militant campaigns so far.

However, the defections of major officials appeared to pose the gravest threat yet to his tenure, although some important military allies remained loyal. ' The three-month-old tide of revolt against Arab rulers seen as repressive, corrupt and unaccountable for unemployment and poverty reached Syria on Friday and gained momentum on Monday as rallies for "freedom" spread in the south.

President Bashar al-Assad's security forces killed four civilians in demonstrations that erupted in the southern city of Deraa on Friday, uncorking the sharpest challenge yet to his 11-year-old rule. His Baath Party has dominated Syria since 1963.

In Libya, where peaceful protests grew into insurrection within weeks, Muammar Gaddafi's forces besieged the only major rebel city in the west and brought in human shields, residents of Misrata said, to ward off further Western air strikes meant to protect civilians.

The first French and British sorties, backed by U.S. missile salvoes, at the weekend halted the Gaddafi forces' advance on the rebels' eastern power base of Benghazi and pounded Libyan air defences to enforce a U.N.-declared no-fly zone.

As Western forces prepared to shift from air strikes to air patrols, there was no sign of any gains on the ground by the loosely organised, poorly trained insurgents.   Continued...

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