SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's newly appointed president fired several old-regime figures and relatives of the former leader in a major shake-up of the country's military Friday, a move meant to show he was making good on promises of reforms in the wake of his predecessor's ouster.
A statement by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi said four governors and over a dozen military generals were sacked "to make way for new officials."
The shake-up came against the backdrop of growing concerns that Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was using the loyalists to further destabilize the turmoil-wracked country. The move also came as hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets Friday demanding that Hadi purge the military of Saleh's relatives.
Among those sacked were some of Saleh's relatives, including his half brother who was the Air Force commander, and his nephew, who headed the presidential guard. In his more than 30 years as president, Saleh had stacked key security posts with relatives and loyalists.
Hadi also sacked a brother-in-law to Saleh's daughter who had headed a lucrative oil products distribution company, which was seen as an arm of the former president's vast economic wealth.
Saleh had clung to office during last year's uprising against his rule until he eventually signed a U.S.-backed, Gulf-brokered power transfer deal and handed power over to Hadi, his deputy at the time. The deal allowed Saleh to remain as head of the ruling party and granted him immunity from prosecution in return for leaving the presidency.
In February, Hadi was rubber-stamped as president in a nationwide vote in which he was the only candidate. He vowed to fight al-Qaida, which had exploited the country's yearlong turmoil to make substantial gains in the south, and restructure the armed forces, in which Saleh's loyalists and family members held key posts.
Saleh's half brother, Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, was sacked as Air Force commander and appointed assistant defense minister, an administrative post. He was replaced by the former governor of Marib province, Najeb Ali al-Zayedi.
The purge came just weeks after air force units ended their mutiny against al-Ahmar after Hadi promised to fire him. Al-Ahmar, who held the post for more than 20 years, had also angered the troops when he recently refused an order for helicopters to evacuate wounded soldiers after an al-Qaida attack killed more than 180 soldiers in the south.
Many in the military and government say that refusal was one example of how Saleh worked behind the scenes to obstruct the country's new U.S.-backed government as it struggles to bring about reforms. Air force officials said al-Ahmar called on the units after the Friday announcement, urging them to reject the shake-up.
Navy official Col. Mohamed Shimsan said the purge was a "very important step."
"It restores faith that had been missing in the government and reveals Hadi's power and his ability to make real changes, even with those close to Saleh," Shimsan told The Associated Press in Sanaa.
Hadi also replaced Saleh's nephew, Tariq Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, as the head of the Presidential Guard, transferring him to desert post. Longtime Saleh loyalist Mohammed Ali Mohsen was replaced as head of the Military's Eastern Command, which is responsible for areas where al-Qaida is active. He was transferred to an administrative post.
Other shake-ups included the replacements of governors in four provinces where al-Qaida has been active or had taken over large swaths of territory and entire cities and towns.
One was the governor of Abyan province, who was believed to have turned a blind eye to al-Qaida's growing influence during the uprising against Saleh as a way of warning the West and Gulf neighbors that without the longtime president, Yemen's security would unravel.
The governors of Marib, Hajja and Taiz were also replaced, according to the statement from Hadi's office.
But the sweeping changes have not affected all Saleh loyalists.
The ex-president's son Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh retained command of the Republican Guard, while another nephew, Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, kept his job as the head of the Central Security Forces.
In Washington, a State Department official welcomed the changes in Sanaa. "The Yemeni people have expressed their desire for political reform and a more representative government," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Another U.S. official said the development appeared to show Hadi was both trying to appease protesters, and comply with the Gulf-brokered deal.
"But Hadi has pragmatically kept some of Saleh's military supporters and rivals in place," the official said, speaking anonymously because the official was not authorized to discuss the changes publicly.
In recent weeks, the military has been waging intense battles in the south to rout the militants. The area has seen heavy fighting in the past week after two subsequent militant attacks on Yemeni army bases. Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is one of the terror movement's most dangerous offshoots.
Violence has continued to shake Yemen daily.
On Friday, a suspected al-Qaida militant died in a botched suicide attack on an intelligence office in the city of Mansoura in Aden province, after his explosives detonated prematurely, security officials said. A civilian who was likely tricked into giving him a ride on a motorcycle also died in the blast.
Another botched attack took place in Bayda province on Friday, where officials say a suicide bomber explosives detonated just a few hundred meters from an intelligence building.
In southern Abyan province, military officials and residents said the army pounded militant hideouts Friday in the city of Jaar, firing rockets and shelling barren farmland for several hours. Military officials said the land was used by al-Qaida as a meeting point and for weapons storage. There was no immediate report of any casualties. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with military regulations.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper and AP Intelligence Writer Kimberley Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.