Explosions rock Yemen airport as new government arrives

Smoke billows at the Aden Airport on December 30, 2020, after explosions rocked the airport shortly after the arrival of a plane carrying members of a new unity government. / Credit: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty

Aden — Explosions rocked Yemen’s Aden airport on Wednesday shortly after the arrival of a plane carrying the new unity government, with the information minister accusing Iran-backed Houthi rebels of the “cowardly” attack. A Houthi official denied the group was involved. “At least two explosions were heard as the cabinet members were leaving the aircraft,” an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

All of the new government ministers were reportedly unharmed, but Yemeni media said at least five people were killed in the explosions. There was no immediate confirmation on casualties as plumes of smoke billowed from the airport building in the southern city and debris lay strewn across the area.

People were seen rushing to tend to the wounded in video broadcast by Saudi television channel Al-Hadath. Crowds who had gathered on the airport tarmac waiting to greet the new government fled, terrified. Sporadic gunfire was heard soon after. Yemen’s internationally recognized government and southern separatists formed a power-sharing cabinet on December 18, forging a joint front against the Houthi rebels who have seized the capital Sanaa and much of the north. Yemeni Information Minister Moammar Al-Eryani said that all the members of the government were safe. “We assure our great people that members of the government are fine, and we assure you that the cowardly terrorist attack by the Iran-supported Houthi militia will not deter us from carrying out our patriotic duty,” he said on Twitter.

Yemenis welcome members of the new unity government at the Aden Airport on December 30, 2020, before explosions rocked the airport. / Credit: SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AFP/Getty

The cabinet members arrived in Aden days after being sworn in by Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi in Saudi Arabia, which leads a military coalition against the insurgents. Hadi fled to the Saudi capital Riyadh after Sanaa fell to the Houthis in 2014.

In a phone interview with Aljazeera, Houthis Political Council member Mohammed al-Bukhaiti denied any involvement by the group in the attack.

“The accusation that we are behind the attack at Aden airport sounds like a broken record,” Bukhaiti told Al Jazeera. “What happened is just a settlement of scores between the mercenaries of the (Saudi) coalition, and we categorically deny any involvement.”

“War within a civil war”

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced in Yemen’s grinding five-year war, which has triggered what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

The new government includes ministers loyal to Hadi and supporters of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), as well as other parties. Prime Minister Main Said has retained his position in the new government, while changes have taken place in several ministries, including the foreign ministry. While all oppose Houthi forces, deep divisions have grown between the forces, and the Riyadh-sponsored push to form the unity government was designed to mend rifts. Saudi Arabia has been encouraging the unity government to quell the “war within a civil war” and to bolster the coalition against the Houthis, who are poised to seize the key town of Marib, the last government stronghold in the north. In recent months, the rebels have stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia — including its critical oil infrastructure — in retaliation for the Riyadh-led military campaign. Yemen also still hosts a significant jihadist presence, including Al-Qaeda and militants loyal to ISIS, despite two decades of air and drone strikes by the United States. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the U.S. considers the terror group’s most dangerous branch, has thrived in the chaos of Yemen’s civil war between pro-government forces and the Houthi rebels. It has carried out operations against both the Houthis and government forces. The unity government formation comes a month before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who was critical of Saudi Arabia during his campaign amid the humanitarian disaster in Yemen since Riyadh’s intervention in the conflict in 2015.

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