Mar 19, 2015 4:58 AM

Clashes in Yemeni city force closure of airport; 3 killed

The Associated Press

ADEN, Yemen (AP) Forces loyal to Yemen's former president stormed a section of the international airport in the southern port city of Aden on Thursday, triggering heavy gunbattles with security forces loyal to the current president. The fighting forced the closure of the facility and passengers on a flight to Cairo were scuttled off the plane and into the terminal building.

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 a section of 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.

Later, Hadi's troops ordered passengers out of the terminal and the airport building, forcing them into the thick of the clashes.

Earlier, the fighting has centered around a security forces' base adjacent to the airport's eastern section. Saleh loyalists are led by renegade police Brig. Gen. Abdul-Hafez al-Saqqaf, according to the security officials. Beside the forces engaged in the airport clashes, two other army units in the city are also loyal to Saleh.

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

Al-Subaihi, the defense minister, also managed to escape house arrest in the rebel-held Sanaa earlier this month and joined Hadi in Aden. Al-Saqqaf, the renegade police officer, was sacked weeks ago by Hadi as part of larger shakeup aimed at filtering the city's military and security leadership from rival Saleh's loyalists. Days of sporadic clashes in Aden left the city tense after al-Saqqaf refused to leave his post.

Forces loyal to Hadi have been deployed to the city, sealing off the residential area where Hadi lives on a hilltop overlooking the sea.

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.

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.


Associated Press writer Ahmed Al-Haj in Aden, Yemen, contributed to this report.


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