x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Loyalists to Saleh attack capital airport in Yemen

The airport is surrounded by forces loyal to air force chief General Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmar, Saleh's half-brother, who has refused to step down after being sacked.

A Yemeni soldier inspects a vehicle at a checkpoint as authorities tighten up security measures in Sanaa yesterday after flights were suspended at the capital's airport.
A Yemeni soldier inspects a vehicle at a checkpoint as authorities tighten up security measures in Sanaa yesterday after flights were suspended at the capital's airport.

SANAA // Gunmen loyal to the country's ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, attacked the capital's airport yesterday, leading authorities to cancel all flights.

An official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said tribesmen and troops in uniform driving pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns opened fire on one tower at the airport and destroyed it.

The attack came one day after Yemen's new president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, sacked several commanders and relatives of Mr Saleh.

"No aircraft has taken off or landed since these forces made their threat late on Friday," said an airport official, adding that were troops surrounding the airport backed by members of the Hamdan tribe that supports Mr Saleh.

Another official said nine international and seven domestic departing flights had been cancelled, while three incoming Yemenia Airways flights were diverted to the main southern city, Aden.

The airport has been encircled by forces loyal to air force chief General Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmar, Saleh's half-brother, who has refused to step down after being sacked.

The sackings came hours after tens of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets across the country to demand Mr Hadi purge the military of Mr Saleh's relatives. Gen Al Ahmar had commanded the air force for more than 20 years.

His dismissal came after more than two months of protests by soldiers and officers demanding he be removed on charges of corruption and nepotism. He was given a new position as an assistant to the defence minister, an administrative post.

Mr Hadi also dismissed Mr Saleh's nephew, Tariq Mohammed Saleh, from his post as a commander of the presidential guard and Mohammed Al Maqdashi, a Saleh loyalist, lost his job as the commander of the central military region.

A anti-Saleh general was also stripped of his title. Mohammed Ali Mohsen, the commander of the eastern military region, who defected last year and joined the revolt against Mr Saleh, was removed as the commander of the maritime forces.

The shake-up followed growing concerns that Mr Saleh was using the loyalists to further destabilise the country.

Some of Mr Saleh's relatives kept their positions. His son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, retained command of the elite Republican Guard, while a nephew, Yahia Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, kept his job as the head of the Central Security Forces.

In his 33 years as president, Mr Saleh stacked key security posts with relatives and loyalists.

"These decisions are the first of their kind by President Hadi and demonstrate that he has started to practice his authority as a president," Ahmed Al Zurkah, an independent analyst, said.

The sackings dismantled the strongest coalitions in the military that were the main cause of tension between rival military units, Mr Al Zurkah said. The sackings should also help improve Yemen's security situation, especially in the south where the government is battling Al Qaeda-linked militants, he said.

On Thursday, the defence minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, told parliament that Mr Saleh was still giving orders to governors and security officials.

Mr Saleh stepped down under pressure in November after agreeing to a Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal to hand over power to Mr Hadi, his deputy at the time, in return for immunity to prosecution for him and key aides.

Under the terms of the deal, Mr Hadi was elected for two years during which he is supposed to oversee drafting a new constitution and restructure the army.

Gen Al Ahmar's refusal to step down as air force commander showed the Saleh family considers "the country as their own property," Mr Al Zurkah said. "This is why they have dealt with the decisions of Hadi in such a reckless way."

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, GCC countries and the European Union said they supported decision to restructure the military. Ambassadors from the countries said in a statement yesterday that the move followed the power-transfer deal signed in November, the state Saba news agency reported yesterday.

The GCC's secretary general, Abdullatif Al Zayani, who led mediation efforts to convince Saleh to step down, said the six-nation group "supports" Mr Hadi and "backs all measures he takes to help Yemen exit its current crisis".

Violence has continued to shake Yemen daily. After the announcement of Friday's firings, forces loyal to Mr Saleh shelled the house of General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, the commander of the First Armoured Division.

The house and business office of the tribal leader Sheikh Hamid Al Ahmar in the southern part of the capital were also shelled, Mr Al Ahmar's office said in a statement. There were no reported casualties.

Meanwhile, the military committee tasked with restoring peace and security to the country, resumed its work yesterday and removed some of the barracks and checkpoints set up by rival groups in the capital.

malqadhi@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse