Main Yemeni airport reopens after one-day shutdown

The main airport in Sana’a was shut down for one day on April 7, 2012 after forces loyal to a sacked general close to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh surrounded it and threatened to shoot down planes. (AFP)

The airport in Yemen’s capital reopened on Sunday after a one-day shutdown prompted by threats from loyalists of a sacked general close to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, an official told AFP.

“The airport has opened after we have received reassurances from the air force that there will be no threats to aviation,” the aviation official said.

“We are now preparing for the first flight” to take off since forces loyal to Saleh’s half-brother, General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, who has refused to quit after being sacked by President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, surrounded the airport late on Friday.

A military source said on Saturday that Ahmar, in a message to his troops, has refused to go unless the defense minister and other senior officials also step down.

He also demanded that several members of the powerful Hashed tribe, which backed defectors during last year’s anti-regime protests, be forced into exile.

Political sources in Sana’a said that Ahmar had come under pressure from several parties, including Western ambassadors in Sana’a, to retract his decision to halt air traffic.

However, on Sunday another military official said that an air force officer who lives near the airport had fired 10 shots at the control tower demanding compensation for land belonging to his tribe which was seized to expand the airport.

“This is what forced the airport to shut down,” the official said.

On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council expressed concern at recent events in Yemen, where followers of Saleh have been accused of hampering the political transition.

U.S. praises Yemeni president

The United States on Saturday praised Yemen’s president for steps taken as part of the ongoing political transition even as the capital’s airport was shut down and tensions ran high in Sana’a.

“The United States welcomes President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s announcement of civilian and military personnel transfers as part of the ongoing political transition in Yemen,” State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said.

“The changes signify the National Consensus Government’s commitment to fulfilling the aspirations of the Yemeni people and restoring stability to the country,” he added.

“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 added.

Hadi’s reshuffle

State news agency Saba said Hadi appointed General Rashed Ali Nasser al-Jund as air force commander, replacing Ahmar, who was made an assistant to the defense minister.

Under the power transfer deal, Hadi is tasked with reunifying the army, which had split during the year-long uprising against Saleh’s rule, with some units openly siding with protesters.

Neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and the United States both backed the transition deal, partly due to concerns over the expansion of Qaeda’s regional wing in a country next to major Red Sea oil shipping lanes.

Saba said that a senior army officer loyal to dissident General Ali Mohsen, who broke away from Saleh after the protests began, was also replaced.

The reshuffle did not affect Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ex-president’s son and commander of the Republican Guards, or Saleh’s nephew, Brigadier General Yehia Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, who heads the paramilitary Central Security Forces.

Also replaced were the governors of four provinces, including that of Taez, a staunch Saleh ally who led a bloody crackdown against protesters, and the governor of southern Abyan province, where Qaeda’s regional wing has seized swathes of territory.

Analysts said Hadi appeared to have tried to be balanced, by replacing officials from both rival camps.

“The decisions show that President Hadi is distinguished as a responsible commander. I believe the decisions have been taken in consultation with all political parties,” Yemeni analyst Ali Saif Hassan said.

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