SANAA, Yemen, (AP) – Yemen’s parliament enacted sweeping emergency laws Wednesday after the country’s embattled president asked for new powers of arrest, detention and censorship to quash a popular uprising demanding his ouster.
The move escalates the showdown between U.S.-backed leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and the movement that has unified military commanders, religious leaders and protesting youth in demands for his immediate departure.
The law suspends the constitution, allows media censorship, bars street protests and gives security forces 30 days of far-reaching powers to arrest and detain suspects.
Its adoption was a virtual certainty because Saleh’s ruling party dominates the 301-seat legislature.
The accelerating conflict has raised fears that Yemen could be pushed into even greater instability. Rival factions of the military have deployed tanks in the capital, Sanaa — with units commanded by Saleh’s son protecting the president’s palace, and units loyal to a top dissident commander protecting the protesters.
Saleh, who has worked closely with a U.S.-offensive against the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, has already dramatically increased his crackdown on anti-government demonstrators, with his security forces shooting dead more than 40 protesters on Friday in Sanaa.
On Tuesday he offered to step down by the year’s end, but the opposition rejected his offer.
He also warned that the country would slide into civil war following the defection of senior army commanders to the opposition.
Tribal leaders, diplomats, lawmakers, provincial governors and newspaper editors have also joined the opposition.
Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, also called Tuesday for a dialogue with the leaders of the youth movements leading the protests at a central Sanaa square that has become the movement’s epicenter.
The defection on Monday of that commander, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a powerful regime insider who commands the army’s powerful 1st Armored Division, has been seen by many as a major turning point toward a potentially rapid end for Saleh’s nearly 32-year rule.
Clashes broke out late Monday between Saleh’s Republican Guard and dissident army units in the far eastern corner of the country. On Tuesday, Republican Guard tanks surrounded a key air base in the western Red Sea coastal city of Hodeida after its commander — Col. Ahmed al-Sanhani, a member of Saleh’s own clan — announced he was joining the opposition.
The turmoil raised alarm in Washington, which has heavily backed Saleh to wage a campaign against a major Yemen-based al-Qaeda wing that plotted attacks in the United States.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a trip to Russia, said Tuesday that “instability and diversion of attention” from dealing with al-Qaeda is a “primary concern about the situation.” He refused to weigh in on whether Saleh should step down.