Friday, March 20, 2015 12:57 am
Yemen’s President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi fled an air raid on his palace in the southern city of Aden Thursday, a day that saw a dramatic escalation in the conflict-ridden country, according to a report by the AFP.
The air raid followed intense fighting at the city’s airport and clashes elsewhere in the country, as analysts warned divided Yemen was slipping towards all-out civil war.
Hadi was forced to evacuate the palace as the fighter jet swooped and opened fire, hitting a nearby hill, presidency sources said.
The plane made a second pass over the palace before it was seen off with a barrage of fire from anti-aircraft units stationed near the compound.
“President Hadi has been evacuated to a safe place but he has not left the country,” the presidency sources told AFP.
The president later said a “coup had been foiled” and called on the armed forces to “reject all orders from Sanaa,” controlled by the Shiite Huthi militia against which he is jockeying for power.
Hadi took refuge in Aden last month after fleeing house arrest under the militia.
The targeting of the palace came just hours after special forces loyal to the Huthis tried to wrest control of Aden’s international airport from Hadi loyalists, leading to heavy clashes that forced a halt to flights.
– Rogue general flees –
At least seven special forces fighters and four members of the Hadi-loyalist Popular Committee were killed, with another 54 wounded between the two sides, a security source said.
Several hundred soldiers loyal to Hadi, supported by tanks and armoured vehicles, were dispatched as reinforcements to the airport.
And the Hadi loyalists eventually managed to repel the attack after several hours of fighting, a military source told AFP.
Shots were fired at the airport’s control tower during the clashes, witnesses said.
A military source told AFP that renegade General Abdel Hafez al-Saqqaf’s “troops were forced to retreat to their camp (north of the airport) after being subjected to heavy shelling”.
Loyalists “took control” of the camp and captured rebels, security sources later said.
Saqqaf, who was commanding between 1,000 and 2,000 men, fled Aden after the fighting, city Governor Abdel Aziz Ben Habtoor told AFP.
He has defied a decree by Hadi sacking him and said he will only follow orders from the presidential council set up by the Huthis in Sanaa.
Later, a security source said Saqqaf had turned himself over to Lah Governor Ahmed al-Majidi, who had offered to mediate on his behalf.
Flights were cancelled due to the clashes and had not resumed by Thursday afternoon.
One passenger who went to the airport said he had to turn back.
“I could not move. All access to the airport was blocked by armed men,” he told AFP.
Other clashes were reported away from the airport including close to local government buildings in the centre of Aden and the local branch of the Central Bank, with reports that one special forces member was killed.
Meanwhile, in Lahj province, five members of the security forces were killed and another seven injured in an armed attack on their barracks in Houta, according to security sources.
It was not immediately known who carried out the attack.
A local offshoot of Al-Qaeda, Ansar Al-Sharia, meanwhile claimed it had carried out the assassination earlier this week of Abdel Karim al-Khiwani, a journalist who was a member of the Huthi militia.
– Instability fears –
Yemen, a key US ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda, has been gripped by unrest since ex-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in early 2012 after a year-long popular uprising against him.
Saleh — along with Iran — has been accused of backing the Huthis, who took control of Sanaa in September and then seized key government buildings in the capital earlier this year.
Hadi resigned after the rebels seized his palace and named a “presidential council” to rule the country and assume the powers of the presidency.
He was placed under house arrest in Sanaa but resurfaced in Aden last month and retracted his resignation, despite being increasingly isolated in his southern Yemen power base.
Washington fears the ongoing political instability will help Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the jihadist network’s most dangerous branch, to flourish.
Jordan Perry, an analyst with Verisk Maplecroft, said the latest violence meant the Gulf state now “lurches closer towards all-out civil war”.