ADEN (Reuters) – At least 22 people were killed and dozens wounded in an attack on Aden airport on Wednesday, moments after a plane landed carrying a newly formed Saudi-backed cabinet for government-held parts of Yemen.
Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik said all members of the cabinet were “fine”. But the attack underlined the difficulties facing a government intended by Saudi Arabia to unite two of its allies in the war against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.
Hours after the attack, a second explosion was heard around Aden’s Maasheq presidential palace where the cabinet members including Maeen, as well as the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammad Said al-Jaber, had been taken to safety, residents and local media said.
In the airport attack, loud blasts and gunfire were heard shortly after the plane arrived from Riyadh, witnesses said. A local security source said three mortar shells had landed on the airport’s hall.
The cabinet gave the death figure on Twitter, citing the interior minister, and said 50 people were wounded. Medecins Sans Frontieres aid group had earlier said 17 people were treated for wounds at its hospital in Aden.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The Saudi-led coalition said it had downed an explosive-laden Houthi drone that was targeting the presidential palace.
There was no immediate reaction from the Houthis, who denied responsibility for the airport attack.
“We and the members of the government are in the temporary capital of Aden and everyone is fine,” Maeen tweeted from Maasheq palace. “The cowardly terrorist act that targeted Aden airport is part of the war that is being waged against the Yemeni state and its great people.”
Jaber tweeted: “Peace, security and stability will prevail thanks to Yemenis’ strong will and their brave government.”
The new cabinet unites the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi with southern separatists, intended to fulfil a Saudi aim of ending a feud among Riyadh’s allies.
The two groups are the main Yemeni factions in a southern-based, Saudi-backed alliance fighting the Houthis who control the north, including the capital Sanaa.
ICRC STAFF MEMBERS KILLED
TV footage from Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel showed dozens of people leaving the airplane when a first blast hit the airport’s hall. Heavy gunfire from armoured vehicles followed, with plumes of white and black smoke rising from the scene.
Other video footage showed damage to the terminal’s concrete walls and smashed glass.
Government officials were among the casualties in the airport attack, sources said. Two International Committee of the Red Cross staff members were killed in the airport attack and one was missing, ICRC said in a statement.
The southern port city of Aden has been mired in violence because of a rift between the separatists and Hadi’s government, based there after being driven from the capital by the Houthis in 2014.
The separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), which seeks independence for south Yemen, declared self-rule in Aden in April, triggering clashes and complicating United Nations efforts to forge a permanent ceasefire in the overall conflict.
The Saudi-led coalition announced the new power-sharing cabinet this month after more than a year of intense Saudi mediation between the government and the separatists.
The STC condemned the attack and accused the Houthi movement of responsibility.
“The attacks were timed with the arrival of new Yemeni government officials and once again demonstrate the malicious intent of those trying to destabilize Yemen,” U.S. State Department spokesman Cale Brown said in a statement, adding that such attacks would not stop peace efforts.
U.N. Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths and several Arab countries also condemned the attack.
“I wish the cabinet strength in facing the difficult tasks ahead,” Griffiths said. “This unacceptable act of violence is a tragic reminder of the importance of bringing Yemen urgently back on the path towards peace.”
Reporting by Yemen staff; Addtitional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Yousef Saba, Raya Jalabi and; Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Yousef Saba; Editing by Angus MacSwan, David Gregorio, Timothy Heritage and Bernadette Baum