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    'Yemen President ready to step down by year end'

    Sanaa: A spokesman for President Ali Abdullah Saleh says the Yemeni leader is willing to step down by the end of the year as part of a "constitutional" transfer of power.

    Ahmed al-Sufi told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Saleh informed senior Yemeni officials, military commanders and tribal leaders of his intention in meetings on Monday night.

    He said the president also vowed never to hand over power to the military.

    Saleh's comments are a reversal of his rejection earlier this month of an opposition proposal demanding his resignation by the year's end.

    It is not clear whether the opposition movement calling for Saleh's ouster will accept his latest offer, especially after his security forces shot dead more than 40 protesters on Friday.

    A top military commander and at least 18 other senior officers defected to the opposition movement demanding the ouster of Yemen's embattled president, depriving the U.S.-allied ruler of most of his power base.

    The looming collapse of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime throws into doubt the American campaign against a major al-Qaida wing that plotted attacks in the United States.

    Monday's defections led to rival tanks being deployed in the streets of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, creating a potentially explosive situation and prompting Saleh's defense minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, to announce the military remained loyal to the longtime leader.

    The armed forces will counter any plots against the government, Ahmed declared on state television, following a meeting of the National Defense Council, which is led by Saleh and includes Ahmed, the prime minister and the intelligence chief.