Yemen's main airport reopens day after attack

Published April 8, 2012 8:54PM (EDT)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's main airport reopened on Sunday, a day after gunmen loyal to the nation's ousted president seized the facility in the capital Sanaa in a brazen challenge to the new government's authority, officials said.

Supporters of former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh attacked the airport on Saturday, shooting up a surveillance tower and sending tanks and armored vehicles to occupy the tarmac. Their action followed a military shake-up in which key commanders loyal to Saleh were fired.

The attack highlighted the challenges facing new President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who must balance a promise to purge ex-regime elements from the security forces with the risk that his predecessor's loyalists will cause massive disruption rather than go quietly.

The security officials said the attackers pulled out from the airport on Sunday. The ex-president's half brother, air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, had been holed up in his office at the military wing of the airport despite being fired in Hadi's purge. Aides earlier said he would not give up his post until Hadi also fired some of the ex-president's opponents, but military officials said he left his office abruptly later Sunday.

They said it was not clear if he accepted Hadi's decision to fire him or not. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

At stake in this power struggle is the stability of the Arab world's poorest country. Al-Qaida has taken advantage of the last year's turmoil to seize large swaths of the south of the country.

The Yemeni branch of al-Qaida is one of the militant movement's most active. It has planned attacks on American soil that have been foiled, prompting Washington to strike back at the group's leaders.

A suspected U.S. drone fired a missile on Saturday evening that hit a car carrying al-Qaida militants in the east of the country, Yemeni officials said. All eight occupants, five Yemenis and three Arab nationals, were killed in the strike.

The missile strike and the death toll were confirmed by tribal leaders in the province of Shabwa, where the attack took place. The tribal leaders spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals, while the security officials did not want to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

In Abyan, another province overran by militants, the defense ministry said 16 al-Qaida militants were killed in an airstrike Sunday.

Washington has backed the power deal that brought in Hadi after more than three decades of Saleh's rule, hoping that he will end the upheaval and uproot al-Qaida from its enclaves.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington welcomed Saturday's military shake-up.

"In spite of those who seek to derail the transition, President Hadi has demonstrated strong leadership by steadfastly implementing the agreed-upon political settlement," Toner said.

A Yemeni military spokesman Ali Said Obeid said Hadi's decision to change commanders was "wise" and part of his mandate to reform the security agencies and get rid of officers who were unable to perform their duties.

"Those who can't offer anything positive should not be a stumbling bloc to implementing decisions that will ensure security and stability," he said in statements to the press.

The restructuring of the military announced by Hadi however left some prominent loyalists in place. Saleh's son Ahmed kept command of the well-equipped and powerful Republican Guard and his nephew Yahia remained the head of the Central Security Forces.

Saleh was the fourth ruler to fall in the Arab Spring wave of revolts in the Middle East, stepping down in the face of protests under a U.S.-backed pact brokered by Gulf Arab states. Under the deal, Saleh handed over power to Hadi, who was his vice president. But the deal allowed Saleh to remain as head of his party and keep half of his cabinet ministers in place. It did not stipulate that he must leave the country, giving rise to fears that he may someday try to return to power.

Many Yemenis are also worried about Saleh loyalists who command military units. The army recently has suffered several defeats in its war against al-Qaida-linked militants in the south, and many believe that Saleh commanders may be actively sabotaging the government's campaign.

By Salon Staff

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