Yemen’s main airport reopened on Sunday, a day after gunmen loyal to the nation’s former president seized the facility in the capital Sanaa, officials said.
Supporters of former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh attacked the airport on Saturday, with tanks and armored vehicles occupying the tarmac. Their action followed a military shake-up in which key commanders loyal to Saleh were fired.
The officials also said that 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. 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.
Saturday’s assault on the airport involved armed tribesmen along with troops in uniform. Driving pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, they blasted buildings of Sanaa International Airport and opened fire on one of the airport surveillance towers before surrounding the entire complex, blocking roads and turning away passenger vehicles.
The security officials said the attackers pulled out from the airport on Sunday but that ex-president Saleh’s half brother, air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, was determined not to leave his office at the military wing of the airport despite being fired by new president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The air force commander was replaced by former Air Force commander Rashid al-Hanad, but aides have said he would not give up his post until Hadi also fired some of the ex-president’s opponents.
Saturday’s attack highlighted the challenges facing Hadi, who must balance a promise to purge ex-regime elements from the army with the ability of his predecessor’s loyalists to cause massive disruption.
At stake is the stability of the Arab world’s poorest country, where al-Qaida is poised to fill the vacuum.
The restructuring of the military announced by Hadi didn’t touch Saleh’s son Ahmed, who kept command of the well-equipped and powerful Republican Guard, or Saleh’s nephew, Yahia, 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 Saleh’s 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 who took control of several towns in the south of the country, and many believe that Saleh commanders may be actively sabotaging the government’s campaign.