SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's president removed his predecessor's son and nephews from powerful security posts on Wednesday in the most dramatic step yet in sidelining old regime figures, according to the nation's state-run media.
Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in early 2012 after more than a year of protests against his rule, placed relatives and loyalists in top military and government posts over his 33-year rule.
They have been accused of obstructing the U.S.-backed government as it tries to reform and fight an active al-Qaida branch in the impoverished Arab nation.
Fireworks went off in the capital, Sanaa, and Yemen's second largest city, Taiz, after the announcement. Restructuring the army was a top demand by Yemenis after Saleh's ouster.
His vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, took over in a power transfer deal brokered by Yemen's powerful Gulf neighbors and backed by the United States. Hadi has since been trying to remove former regime loyalists over concerns that Saleh was using them to further destabilize the turmoil-wracked country.
Washington has expressed concern that some in the military have been taking advantage of their positions for personal gain to interfere in the country's transition, since regime change threatens their personal interests. The U.N. Security Council warned Saleh directly that he could face sanctions if attempts to undermine the new national unity government persist.
In his latest move, Hadi not only removed Saleh's son and two nephews from their posts, but also effectively ordered them to leave the country by posting them abroad.
He removed Saleh's son Ahmed as head of the Republican Guard and appointed him ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. The force is an elite army unit that was once the backbone of Saleh's rule. It was supposed to be reorganized and brought under the control of the Defense Ministry according to Hadi's orders last year, but those changes had not materialized on the ground.
In a sign of how challenging the overhaul has been, Republican Guard troops earlier this week forced businesses closed and clashed with police and residents in the city of Radda, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of the capital. Three residents and two soldiers from the Republican Guard were killed.
In other changes, Saleh's nephew Ammar, the deputy intelligence chief, was made a military attache in Ethiopia. Ammar's brother, Tareq Yahia, head of the Presidential Guard, was made a military attache in Germany.
The decrees also affect one of Saleh's top foes, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who defected during the 2011 uprising along with his First Armored Division and joined opposition forces. He commanded more than 50,000 soldiers and up to two dozen generals.
Hadi ordered that al-Ahmar, one of the most powerful men in Yemen, leave his post and serve as a presidential adviser, a move that diminishes the general's reach. It comes a year after the president ordered his division dispersed among other military units.
The First Armored Division's base in northwestern Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, will be turned into a national park, according to Hadi's decrees.
The country will now have seven military zones instead of five. The decree also restructures the military intelligence agency to allow for more than one body to oversee it.
Among the most prominent decisions was the creation of a Defense Reserve Force comprised of six brigades that will be based in Sanaa to protect Hadi's government from military coups and other disruptions, according to a senior military official who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The defense ministry will also have a new Inspector General.
Presidential spokesman Mahboub Ali told The Associated Press that the decrees were supposed to be announced last November, but international advisers from the United States, United Kingdom, Jordan and the U.N. were late in making proposals.
The decisions were announced while Saleh was in neighboring Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He has been under international pressure to leave the country.
Last year Hadi ordered similar overhauls of the country's Defense Ministry. Wednesday's reshuffle removes the last of Saleh's closest relatives from their posts.
Saleh's family-owned TV channel Yemen el-Yowm reported Wednesday that the president's son "welcomes the decision" and "does not oppose it."
Similarly, al-Ahmar released a statement calling the decision "historical."
Yemen's military, deeply fractured and divided, faces powerful tribes needed to help fight al-Qaida. There have been accusations that Saleh's supporters turned a blind eye when al-Qaida overran cities in southern Yemen during the 2011 uprising to create an atmosphere of chaos and delay any transition.
The deputy leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, Saeed al-Shihri, harshly criticized Yemen's neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, for its policy of allowing the United States to launch deadly drone strikes from bases in the kingdom. This followed an al-Qaida claim that al-Shihri was not killed in a drone strike, as Yemen reported.
The audio recording was released Wednesday. It was not known when it was made.