The airport in Yemen’s capital was shut down on Saturday after forces loyal to a sacked general close to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh surrounded it and threatened to shoot down planes, a source said.
The airport has been encircled by forces loyal to air force chief General 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.
“No aircraft has taken off or landed since these forces made their threat late on Friday,” the source said, adding that the troops surrounding the airport were backed by members of the Hamdan tribe that supports former strongman Saleh.
These men were led by Naji Jamaan, a Hamdan tribal chief, the source added.
On Thursday, 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 refused to quit unless several senior defense ministry officials, including the minister himself, also leave, said the source.
Hadi sacked two military chiefs close to his predecessor, the official SABA news agency reported Friday, citing a presidential decree.
Ahmar and head of the presidential guard General Tarek Mohamed Abdallah Saleh ̶ former president’s nephew ̶ were both fired, said the decree.
There had already been calls from within the air force for Ahmar to go.
In a message to his troops, Ahmar said that the presidential decree would not be “implemented” until Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and chief of staff Ali al-Ashwal were dismissed.
He also demanded that several members of the powerful Hashed tribe be forced into exile. The tribe backed defectors such as General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar during last year’s anti-regime protests.
The reshuffle came as al-Qaeda militants, who have exploited instability during a year of protests against Saleh to boost their activities, launched two attacks against government sites.
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 defence 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.
Neighbouring 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 Taiz, 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.
“This is the largest military shake-up in recent times. It took many by surprise,” said Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for Yemen’s embassy in Washington.
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.