Flights grounded at Yemen airport

McClatchy NewspapersApril 7, 2012 

SANAA, Yemen — Flights from Sanaa International Airport were grounded Saturday, in the wake of fears that forces loyal to recently sacked air force head, General Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, half-brother of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, would target civilian planes in retaliation for his replacement.

The shuttering of Yemen's primary international airport comes less than 24 hours after Yemeni president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi announced a large-scale reshuffling of key civilian and military positions. In addition to making a number of changes in the Yemeni military — including replacing al-Ahmar, the target of a months-long mutiny within the air force's ranks — Hadi also appointed new governors in four provinces.

Airport security officials said that the flights had been canceled since early Saturday morning, following an outburst of gunfire from the direction of the Dailami air force base, which lies adjacent to the airport. But by the afternoon, the scene at the airport was one of a tense calm. Surrounding roads remained open to traffic, and stranded travelers freely moved around airport as they attempted to gather information about canceled flights. And many of those tasked with guarding the airport openly expressed their disbelief at the possibility of a renewed flare-up of violence.

"Mohamed Saleh is angry, so we all have to suffer," said a soldier stationed at the airport, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The idea of attacking civilian planes — it's crazy."

Friday evening's announcement was Hadi's most significant exercise of power since he took office in February in accordance with a western-backed power transfer deal aimed at securing the exit of former president Saleh — the target of months of street protests — from power.

Described by Mohamed al-Basha, a government spokesman, as "the biggest military shakeup in Yemen's modern history," Hadi's decrees were widely seen as a sign of the new president's commitment to pushing forward substantive changes in Yemen and a move to allay worries that Hadi — Saleh's deputy since 1994 — would be unable or unwilling to exert control over holdovers from his former boss' regime.

But while his slew of proclamations were initially met with optimism, the closure of the airport underscored the difficulties facing Hadi as he embarks on the difficult process of reforming Yemen's military, which for more than a year has been divided between defected and loyalist units, many of which are still headed by Saleh's relatives.

Since assuming office, Hadi has garnered the vocal backing of much of the international community, and in the wake of the airport's closure, a number of western and Arab ambassadors to Yemen issued a joint letter stressing their support for the president.

But many have raised fears that allies of Saleh — who, despite speculation that he would seek residence elsewhere, continues to reside in Yemen — would interfere with efforts toward political reform, threatening to push the already fractious nation, which has been wracked by sporadic factional clashes for much of the past year, back to the brink of civil war.

Many of those still loyal to the former president have balked at efforts to purge Yemen's military of Saleh's family members, stating that any military reshuffling must include the sacking of General Ali Mohsen, a powerful general and former ally who dropped support for the former president in March.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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