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Troops Loyal to Fired Yemeni Generals Shutter Main Airport

Apr. 7, 2012 - 12:36PM   |  
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SANAA, Yemen — The airport in Yemen’s capital was shut down April 7 after forces loyal to a sacked general close to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh surrounded it and threatened to shoot down planes, an airport official said.

“No aircraft has taken off or landed since these forces made their threat late on [April 6],” said the official, adding that the troops surrounding the airport were backed by members of the Hamdan tribe that supports former strongman Saleh.

Another official said nine international and seven domestic departing flights had been cancelled, while three incoming Yemenia Airways flights were diverted to the main southern city Aden.

The airport has been encircled by forces loyal to Air Force chief Gen. Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, Saleh’s half brother, who has refused to step down after being sacked by President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, the source said.

The men were led by Naji Jamaan, a Hamdan tribal chief, the source added.

On April 5, the U.N. Security Council expressed concern over recent events in Yemen, where followers of Saleh have been accused of hampering the political transition.

Ahmar has refused to go unless the defense minister and other senior officials also leave, a military source said.

In a message to his troops, Ahmar said Hadi’s decree would not be implemented until Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar — head of the First Armoured Brigade that protected anti-Saleh protesters last year in Sanaa — and chief of staff Ali al-Ashwal left their posts.

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.

In addition to Ahmar, Hadi also sacked Saleh’ nephew, Gen. Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, who heads the presidential guard.

The military source said Tareq had also refused to quit and had turned down an offer to command of the 37th Battalion of the Republican Guard in the southeastern province of Hadramawt.

Gulf Cooperation Council chief Abdullatif al-Zayani, who led mediation efforts to convince Saleh to step down, said the six-nation group “supports” Hadi and “backs all measures he takes to help Yemen exit its current crisis.”

Zayani also “urged all political power players in Yemen and all those involved to support the Yemeni president to move forward in implementing the principles stipulated by the Gulf Initiative.”

That initiative, under which Saleh resigned after 33 years in power in exchange for immunity from prosecution, includes a restructuring of the army as one of several conditions.

During his years in power, Saleh chose his aides carefully and many remain in control of security bodies. Critics say he has been interfering in the smooth transition of power.

Saleh’s son Ahmed still heads the elite Republican Guard, while a nephew, Yehya, commands central security services.

In a February speech, Hadi stressed the need to reunify the army as he pledged “radical reforms” and to fight al-Qaida as he outlined a two-year transition plan.

Last month, he named Gen. Salem Ali Qatan to head the 31st Armoured Brigade in southern Yemen. He replaces Gen. Mahdi Moqala, known for his close ties to Saleh and accused of corruption.

Two days later, al-Qaida militants attacked troops in the southern city of Zinjibar and killed 185 soldiers. Survivors accused some army leaders who had served under Saleh of “collaborating” in the attack.

In an April 5 statement, the U.N. Security Council expressed “concern at the recent deterioration in cooperation among political actors and the risks this poses to the transition.”

It called on all sides in Yemen “to remain committed to the political transition, constitutional order, to play a constructive role in the process and to reject violence.”

The council also expressed “strong concern about intensified terrorist attacks, including by al-Qaida, within Yemen.”

Saleh retains the leadership of the General People’s Congress, and aides have not ruled out his standing in a contested presidential election due to be held alongside new parliamentary polls in 2014.

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