Forces loyal to Yemen’s former president stormed the international airport in the southern port city of Aden yesterday triggering an intense gun battle before security forces loyal to the current president repelled them.
The fighting forced the airport’s closure, and passengers on a flight to Cairo still on the tarmac were rushed off the plane and into the terminal building.
Clashes between the two sides erupted around Aden, the country’s second most important city and economic hub.
The assault in Aden was the latest against Yemen’s embattled, internationally backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was driven out of the capital, Sanaa, after a takeover by Shiite rebels known as Houthis.
Mr Hadi and his allies fled to Aden, which they have made their de facto capital in a conflict that threatens to push the long unstable, impoverished nation into outright fragmentation.
The attack on the airport was by forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the long-time autocratic president who was ousted from power by a 2011 popular uprising. Mr Saleh has allied with the Houthis against Mr Hadi, and his loyalists still command parts of the military and police.
The attempt to capture Aden’s airport appeared to be aimed at isolating the city and weakening Mr Hadi’s hold.
Last week, Mr Saleh boasted he would corner Mr Hadi as he fled Sanaa. “Those fleeing to the south … will find only one exit: the Red Sea toward Djibouti,” he said told supporters.
Tensions have been building for days in Aden. Hadi loyalists, in the military and police and in militias known as Popular Committees, dominate the city.
But two army units in the city are loyal to Mr Saleh, as is a unit of 3,000 police special forces under a pro-Saleh commander, Brigadier General Abdul-Hafez al-Saqqaf. Mr Hadi tried unsuccessfully to remove Gen al-Saqqaf from his post this month, prompting some clashes.
The fighting started in the early hours of yesterday when a unit of Gen al-Saqqaf’s police special forces stormed the airport grounds, sparking heavy battles with pro-Hadi forces. Machine gun fire rang out and explosions shook the terminal building.
At least two shells hit the airport’s grounds, said security and aviation officialse. Three of Mr Saleh’s loyalists were killed and ten were captured in the clashes.
During the fighting, more than 100 passengers were rushed off a plane of the national carrier Yemenia that was on the tarmac, They were ushered into the terminal building.
One of Mr Hadi’s presidential planes, a Boeing 747, was damaged when Saleh loyalists sprayed it with gunfire, the officials said.
During more than four hours of fighting, a convoy of tanks and armoured vehicles arrived from Aden to reinforce the airport’s defenders. Gen al-Subaihi’s troops ordered passengers out of the terminal and the airport building, in the thick of the clashes.