Yemen's main airport reopens day after attack

By AHMED AL-HAJ | April 8, 2012 | 8:56 AM EDT

FILE - In this Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011 file photo, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to reporters during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, Yemen. Gunmen loyal to Yemen's ousted president blasted buildings at the country's main airport with anti-aircraft guns on Saturday, forcing authorities to shut it down, an airport official said. The attack comes a day after Yemen's new President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fired key security officials appointed by ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh including his half brother, the air force commander Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, and his nephew, Tariq, who headed the presidential guard. (AP Photo/Mohammed Hamoud, File)

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen's main airport reopened on Sunday, a day after gunmen loyal to the nation's ousted president seized the facility in the capital Sanaa in a brazen challenge to the new government's authority, officials said.

Supporters of former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh attacked the airport on Saturday, shooting up a surveillance tower and sending tanks and armored vehicles to occupy the tarmac. Their action followed a military shake-up in which key commanders loyal to Saleh were fired.

The attack highlighted the challenges facing new President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who must balance a promise to purge ex-regime elements from the army with the risk that his predecessor's loyalists will cause massive disruption rather than go quietly.

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 in Hadi's purge. Aides have said he would not give up his post until Hadi also fired some of the ex-president's opponents.

At stake in this power struggle is the stability of the Arab world's poorest country. Al-Qaida has taken advantage of the last year's turmoil to seize large swaths of the south of the country.

The Yemeni branch of al-Qaida is one of the militant movement's most active. It has planned foiled attacks on American soil with Washington striking back at the group's leaders.

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, the Yemeni officials said. 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.

Washington has backed the power deal that brought in Hadi after more than three decades of Saleh's rule, hoping that he will end the upheaval and uproot al-Qaida from its enclaves.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington welcomed Saturday's military shake-up.

"In spite of those who seek to derail the transition, President Hadi has demonstrated strong leadership by steadfastly implementing the agreed-upon political settlement," Toner said.

The restructuring of the military announced by Hadi however left some prominent loyalists in place. Saleh's son Ahmed kept command of the well-equipped and powerful Republican Guard and his nephew Yahia remained 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 his 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 in the south, and many believe that Saleh commanders may be actively sabotaging the government's campaign.