Clashes engulf, shut airport in southern Yemeni city; 3 die

  • AP, Aden
  • Updated: Mar 19, 2015 18:18 IST

Forces loyal to Yemen's former president stormed a section of the international airport in the southern port city of Aden on Thursday, triggering an hours-long gunbattle before security forces loyal to the current president repelled them and secured the hub.

The fighting forced the airport's closure and passengers on a flight to Cairo were scuttled off the plane and into the terminal building. Sporadic clashes between rival units in Aden erupted later in the day in various locations inside the city itself.

The attackers - a unit of police commandos loyal to longtime autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was ousted following a 2011 popular uprising - managed to enter the airport grounds but met with heavy resistance from the security forces and militias loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is based in Aden.

Three of Saleh's loyalists were killed and 10 were captured in the clashes, according to security and medical officials.

More than 100 passengers who had boarded a flight to Cairo, including an Associated Press reporter, were ordered off the Yemenia aircraft and rushed to the terminal building as machinegun fire rang out.

The plane was one of only two aircraft, both belonging to the national carrier, left on the tarmac. The sound of heavy explosions shook the terminal building as the clashes intensified.

At least two shells hit the airport's grounds, said security and aviation officials at the scene. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

As the fighting escalated, a convoy of tanks and armored vehicles was dispatched from the city center to the airport, less than a kilometer (half mile) away, security officials said.

By mid-morning, Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, a Hadi loyalist, arrived at the airport in a motorcade of two dozen armored cars to boost the airport's defenders. Al-Subaihi's troops then ordered passengers out of the terminal and the airport building, forcing them into the thick of the clashes.

After more than four hours of intense fighting, al-Subaihi took back control of the airport and ordered his forces to surround an adjacent security facility, the base of renegade police Brig. Gen. Abdul-Hafez al-Saqqaf, a Saleh loyalist, and force the troops inside to surrender. Earlier in the day, the fighting has centered around the same base, according to the officials.

The fall of the Aden airport, a major hub on the Arabian Sea, to Saleh's loyalists would have further isolated Hadi, who had declared the city as the country's temporary capital last month after he escaped house arrest at the hands of Iranian-backed Shiite rebels in the capital, Sanaa.

Later Thursday, sporadic clashes erupted throughout Aden between Saleh and Hadi loyalists, and armored vehicles and tanks fanned out into the streets. Security troops deployed around hotels and government agencies in the city center and pro-Hadi militiamen took over the Central Bank.

Saleh's forces took control of the local city council building, and ambulance sirens could be heard across the city.

Aden has already seen sporadic clashes this week, after al-Saqqaf refused to leave his post when Hadi sacked him earlier this month in an effort to filter the city's military and security leadership of Saleh's loyalists.

Beside the forces who attacked the airport, there are two other army units loyal to Saleh inside the city, controlling the eastern and northern districts of Aden.

Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, is deeply polarized and engulfed in turmoil that threatens to split the country amid a power grab by the rebels known as the Houthis.

The rebels last year seized Sanaa and several northern provinces, and in January declared themselves the country's rulers. Hadi insists he remains the country's legitimate leader and enjoys much support in Aden, where he has been based since fleeing house arrest.

Al-Subaihi, the defense minister, also managed to escape house arrest in the rebel-held Sanaa earlier this month and joined Hadi in Aden.

Meanwhile, Yemen's al-Qaida branch, considered by Washington the terror network's most dangerous offshoot, has profited from the turmoil and has been stepping up attacks on Yemeni forces and also the Shiite rebels.

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