ADEN, Yemen (AP) - Forces loyal to Yemen’s former president stormed the international airport in Aden on Thursday and sent fighter planes to bomb the palace in the southern port city where the current president has been based since fleeing from the rebel-held capital last month.
Troops fended off the airport attack, the airstrikes missed the palace and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was in a safe place, Aden’s governor Abdel-Aziz bin Habtour said.
But the violence, which he said had left 13 people dead, marked a major escalation in Hadi’s long-simmering conflict with former autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied with the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis. Hadi remains Yemen’s internationally recognized president and has been a close U.S. ally in the battle against a powerful local al-Qaida affiliate.
Thursday’s attacks were led by forces loyal to Saleh, who stepped down in 2012 in the face of an Arab Spring uprising. A U.N. and Gulf-brokered deal saw Hadi, his vice president, assume office.
But Saleh had never really conceded power, and Hadi has accused his predecessor of acting through well-placed loyalists to obstruct efforts to reform the government and the security forces. The U.N. Security Council has sanctioned Saleh and top Houthi rebel leaders.
The Houthis swept down from their northern strongholds and seized the capital Sanaa in September. They now control at least nine of Yemen’s 21 provinces. Hadi fled Sanaa last month after the Houthis put him under house arrest and he established a temporary capital in Aden, Yemen’s main economic hub and the former capital of the once-independent south.
The assault on the airport set off clashes between forces loyal to Saleh and Hadi in Aden, with explosions echoing through the largely deserted streets. The warplanes then launched three airstrikes at Hadi’s palace, located on a rocky hill overlooking the Arabian Sea. The strikes caused no damage and Hadi was not present at the time, bin Habtour said.
It was not clear whether the planes were flown by Saleh loyalists in the military or by Houthi rebels, who control several military and air bases in and around Sanaa.
The attempt to capture Aden’s airport appeared to be aimed at isolating Hadi and weakening his hold on the city. It is not yet clear if he will be able to leave Aden by the end of the month to attend an Arab Summit in Egypt. Officials said the airport is operating again, but there were no flights out Thursday evening.
Late Thursday, a statement issued by Hadi described the day’s events as a “failed military coup against constitutional legitimacy.”
Last week, Saleh had boasted he would corner Hadi. “Those fleeing to the south … will find only one exit: the Red Sea toward Djibouti,” he said in a speech to his supporters.
Hadi is a southerner, and his loyalists — in the military, police and militias known as Popular Committees — dominate Aden. But two army units in the city are loyal to Saleh, as are 3,000 police special forces under Brig. Gen. Abdul-Hafez al-Saqqaf. Hadi tried unsuccessfully to reassign al-Saqqaf earlier this month, prompting clashes.
It was al-Saqqaf’s forces that stormed the airport early Thursday, sparking 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 officials at the scene. Ten Saleh loyalists were captured in the clashes, according to security and medical officials.
During the fighting, more than 100 passengers - including an Associated Press reporter - were rushed off a Cairo-bound plane of the national carrier Yemenia that had been waiting on the tarmac and into the terminal building.
“One day it is the Houthis, another day it is al-Qaida and now Saleh’s forces. We are getting it from all directions. We deserve some mercy,” a middle-aged man said as he looked out at the tarmac from the departure lounge.
One of 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 armored vehicles led by Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, a Hadi loyalist, arrived from downtown Aden to reinforce the airport’s defenders. Al-Subaihi’s troops then ordered passengers out of the terminal and the airport building, through the thick of the clashes.
After warding off the airport assault, his troops surrounded the adjacent base of the pro-Saleh police commandos and pounded it with artillery before storming it in the afternoon, officials said.
After al-Saqqaf’s forces surrendered, militiamen and civilians overran the base, looting weapons and equipment. Gunmen and civilians - including children - carried off boxes of ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades, riot police shields and helmets, and tear gas canisters, according to an AP reporter at the scene.
Militiamen held machine-gun posts of the defeated police, and Hadi loyalists flashed V-for-victory signs from atop tanks. The shelling and gunfire had punched holes in several buildings outside the airport.
The governor said Hadi’s forces are searching for al-Saqqaf, who fled during the clashes. Hadi’s statement accused him of conspiring with the Houthis to “spread chaos.”
Security officials meanwhile said prison guards loyal to Saleh had opened the gates of the central Aden prison, allowing about 300 prisoners to escape before Hadi’s Popular Committees sealed the facility. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Armored vehicles and tanks fanned out across the city and Public Committee militiamen roamed the streets in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns. Pro-Hadi forces deployed around hotels and government buildings.
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, is effectively split in half, with the rebels in the north having disbanded parliament and declared themselves the country’s rulers. Hadi remains popular in the formerly independent south, which has bristled under Sanaa’s rule since the 1994 civil war.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, with strongholds in the vast and lawless east, has exploited the turmoil, stepping up attacks on Yemeni forces and the Shiite rebels.
Associated Press writer Ahmed Al-Haj in Aden, Yemen, contributed to this report.
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